'Putz' Christmas villages of the early 20th century bring out nostalgia for collectors
December 18, 2010 10:00 AM
A clock tower stands watch over one of Ted Althof's villages and electric train set.
Pam Panchak / Post-Gazette
Ted Althof of Tarentum holds a rare "pagoda" with simulated tile roof. It is part of his collection of Christmas Villages that sold in dime stores in the 1920s-'40s.
Pam Panchak / Post-Gazette
Part of Ted Althof's collection of putz houses. Many of the vintage pieces are often missing the fragile Santa Claus figures.
Antoinette Stockenberg photo
This coconut-style putz house covered with shredded cellophane belongs to collector Antoinette Stockenberg, who has a putz website, http://antoinettestockenberg.com/Putz2010.htm.
By Melanie J. Martin
Many older Pennsylvanians have childhood memories of gazing down upon perfect little worlds where happy couples snuggled into sleighs coasting across snowy meadows or held hands as they whirled across frozen ponds. Parents returned home laden with packages tied up with ribbons, stopping to listen to the angelic voices of carolers.
As a preschooler, Ted Althof, 69, of Tarentum recalls lying next to his family's Christmas tree in Erie, fantasizing about living in that town of pasteboard houses with cellophane windows.
"I'd think about this little town and think about the town around me. How does this compare to what's really real?"
Fast-forward to the 1970s, when he began collecting these miniature buildings known as putz houses because their predecessors came to the United States centuries before with German immigrants (see related story at right).
The vintage houses that Mr. Althof and other enthusiasts collect today date from the late 1920s through the 1970s, though most collectors agree that the older ones are far better and more valuable. The 1930s was their golden age, and nearly all were made in Japan. Sold in dime stores, they each had a distinct flavor and often a certain quirkiness that collectors today treasure. Their creators made them by hand using pasteboard (like cardboard), and though they earned little for their efforts, they put extraordinary creativity into the houses.
Putz houses came in every color as well as many styles, and sometimes had offbeat details like a frowning snowman, pink snow on the roof, or bizarre architectural touches. Huge round silo-like chimneys, swimming pools in the front yard, and even houses shaped like Christmas trees were apt to appear without warning or repetition. Those are the details collectors now treasure -- the whimsical or just plain strange ones that add character to a putz village.
Mr. Althof rediscovered putz houses through their typical companion -- electric trains. When he went to buy an old train set, the owner insisted he take all the other Christmas memorabilia in the attic, including an entire village.
"What am I gonna do with this stuff?" he thought, but later was glad he'd accepted.
In the late 1920s, dime stores and catalogs like Montgomery Ward and Sears and Roebuck started selling putz houses. People often purchased little boxed sets of mixed styles of houses. In 1928, the Japanese houses made their appearance, according to Mr. Althof, the first person to intensively research putz houses. His Papa Ted's Place website (www.papatedsplace.com) has hundreds of images of pieces from his collection and others' plus old catalog pages, vintage photos and other memorabilia.
These 1928 houses typically had lithographed brick or stone on their sides, often with tiled roofs. Their creators used glitter liberally to represent snow. Sometimes these houses came with a Santa Claus figure, but few have survived.
"They crumbled fairly easily," he says, "and often all you find are just a pair of feet in the front yard."
The golden age of putz houses lasted from 1928 to 1937. Starting in 1930, house-shaped candy boxes with more elaborate bases entered the market. These houses might have a yard with a fence, though the house can still be removed from the base.
Brightly colored shellacked houses, called "lakkies" by collectors, were sold from 1928 to '32. Another style that resembled a log cabin, the "loggie," arrived on the scene around 1929 and stayed on the market through the 1960s.
From 1930 to '33, Mr. Althof says, glossy-roofed putz houses lined the dime store shelves. A very recognizable style called the "coconut" appeared in 1931. The name comes from the frequent use of shredded cellophane, which looks much like shredded coconut, as snow. Their creators also liked to make the houses sparkle using ground glass or sand, Mr. Althof says.
From 1935 until partway through World War II, "haciendas," with their adobe look, brighter colors and sometimes bizarre details like attached windmills filled the shelves, he says. Many of the houses had trees made from luffah fixed to their bases; collectors still use luffah as an easy material for creating natural-looking trees that last.
Japanese-made putz houses remained popular throughout the Great Depression until World War II. Depression-era parents couldn't afford many extras, but they tried to make magical Christmases for their children.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, ushering the United States into World War II, importation of putz houses from Japan stopped. At an antique show, Mr. Althof met an older woman who was working at a dime store at the time of the bombing. The day after it happened, she said, the manager told her to box up everything made in Japan and place it on the curb with a sign saying "Free to Anyone Who Wants to Carry This Away." When the Japanese imports disappeared from stores, Dolly Toy Co. and Colmor picked up the slack, Mr. Althof says.
He doesn't actively seek out putz houses anymore
Instead, "I collect collectors," he jokes.
The collectors he has met through his website are in it for the nostalgia mostly, not the money, he says. In good condition, an older putz house can sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay and elsewhere. Others sell for a few dollars, depending on quality, size and whether they appeal to buyers' individual tastes. For many, inexpensive finds that remind them of their childhood can be the greatest treasures.
When asked why he collects these houses, Mr. Althof says these little houses take him back to a period in childhood he calls "the magic window," the time when children still have a strong sense of wonder, especially during the holiday season.
In a story by that name on his website, he writes: "The power that an object unseen in decades can have to transport us in mind and spirit back to a specific period or moment of our lives -- to unlock long-closed doors in the mansion of our memory -- is the true value that it has.
"We can hold such an object in our hands and know those times were real, and welcome back whole parts of who we were into who we are ... and let the inner child in each of us out to play again -- to live as part of us and help us see again through our own Magic Window."