The doll's house is a generous and expensive gift sent to the family by a friend, Mrs. Hay, after she'd visited and returned to her home in town. The doll's house is quite detailed, with plush carpeting, painted pictures on the walls, tiny furniture, real linens on the beds, and a tiny amber oil lamp filled with liquid. The Burnell family is wealthy, and the parents would not choose to send the girls to this village school if there was any other choice.
But there was none. It was the only school for miles. And the consequence was all the children of the neighbourhood, the Judge's little girls, the doctor's daughters, the store-keeper's children, the milkman's, were forced to mix together.
The Burnell girls are not even allowed to speak to the Kelvey daughters, as Mrs. Kelvey is a "washerwoman" and there is a rumor that their father is in prison. Isabel Burnell, the oldest daughter, is allowed to invite playmates to see the house, and, of course, she chooses other well-to-do friends to come over first.
Soon, everyone has seen the doll's house except for Lil and Else Kelvey, the poorest children in the school, who are constantly teased and mocked by the others because they wear hand-me-down clothes and eat jam sandwiches wrapped in newspaper. The youngest Burnell, Kezia, wants to invite the Kelveys once everyone else has seen the house, but her mother insists that Kezia "know[s] quite well why not." It's because the Kelveys are poor and of low status.
The girls at school are cruel, taunting the Kelveys and saying that Lil will "be a servant when she grows up." Thus, the doll's house comes to represent materialism because the other girls, the girls whose families have money, are allowed to see it and appreciate it as though only they would be able to. Isabel Burnell, for example, values the doll's house and the prestige it brings to her in the schoolyard just as her parents value money and status. Every Burnell except Kezia seems to value people in this way, too, and only she wants to be kind to the Kelveys. Only Kezia sees the house as something other than a symbol of status and wealth.