A History of Dimestore Christmas Village Houses

March 28th, 2008

In this article, the late Ted Althof, who was known as Papa Ted, gave us an in-depth history of decorative dimestore Christmas village houses and other vintage Christmas decorations. A page at CardboardChristmas.com is now devoted to his memory and interests.

world war II colmor house

The following is a history of these wondrous little artifacts called cardboard Christmas village houses – a history devoted to establishing some way of categorizing them and putting them into chronological perspective.

It’s a tall chore, because these were small-change notions, not expensive nor considered serious enough to impart model numbers, cataloging, and so forth by those who made them. Even the cheapest 59-cent Christmas light sets had numbers collectors could refer to. Not so the little Christmas houses – especially the Japanese houses. To this day, no Japanese OEM product line catalogs have been turned up (at least by me).

The sleuthing has been addictive and I cannot lay it down. Because of the doors and windows, styles and methods of construction, I’m convinced that a single Japanese company made them all. I cannot find the name of that company, even with a solid contact in the Japanese Business Embassy in Detroit. But I think I have managed to gather a fair amount through little clues and evidences that have provided telling insights along the way. If anything of this kind turns up for you, I hope you will share! This story is FAR from over!

Some Background on Vintage Dimestore Christmas Items

february house of the month martha stuart house

The American “Five and Dime” and the mail-order catalog had grown into national institutions between the 1880′s and World War I, but the truly “Great Golden Age” of the American Dimestore Christmas occurred between the two Great Wars: World Wars I & II.

Two names are foremost to be credited with the origins of our American Christmas holiday trappings: The Butler Brothers of Chicago, who in the 1860s invented the concept of the low-priced open display counter from which all “dimestores” sprang; and F.W. Woolworth, who went abroad and provided product encouragement and a vast marketplace – first to the German and then to the Japanese holiday and toy industries, enabling both to bloom and thrive.

Prior to WW I, most everything toy and holiday was German. Traveling Europe extensively in the 1890s in search of merchandise for his stores, Woolworth came upon a small glass Christmas ornament cottage industry in the Thuringen Valley region of Germany, sent some home for a trial, and the rest is history. Germany was already famed for cheap and charming toys and cuckoo clocks, but America had not seen the glass Christmas tree ornaments. Demand was instantaneous and insatiable. The words “German” and “Christmas” became synonymous.january 2002 house of the month

WW I changed everything. Even several years before America entered the fray, the supply of German goods became unreliable and then totally dried up. Woolworth again set out for foreign shores, but in the opposite direction – this time to Japan, with whom we were not at war. There he did what he had done in Germany some 20 years before.

It is fascinating to speculate on the obstacles he surely had to overcome, trying to communicate the kinds of things he wanted to a vastly different culture that had had no idea of Christmas whatsoever. Germany was long steeped in Christmas traditions and had practically invented the Holiday, but to the Japanese it was alien and new. History proves F.W. did it, somehow, but the curious aesthetic nature of so many of the Japanese items from those times remains of never-ending fascination to collectors.

In the 1920′s, as inexpensive series lights lit up the average American Christmas tree with blazing color, the middle-class American Christmas came alive with unprecedented electric light and sparkle. Delighted to discover the sheer size of their new marketing opportunities, the Japanese expanded explosively into all holiday product areas and were anxious to sell to anybody. F.W. had no monopoly, and soon Japanese Christmas goods were to be found in every “five-and-dime,” the department stores, and mail-order houses.charming beaded pair house of the month sugust 2002

Thus, the phrase “Made in Japan” came into the American common vocabulary in the “Roaring Twenties,” and German things began to creep back in again during that decade. The Great Depression, for all its strife, was absolutely rich with Christmas – to say nothing of radio, fabulous cars and electric trains and talking motion pictures. If you had a job and money in the 1930s – and 75% of the workforce did – you had an unprecedented cornucopia of wonderful things to choose from.

Cardboard Village Houses Arrive: The Prewar Period

Sometime around about 1927-28, the ever-innovative Japanese came up with the little cardboard houses – a logical, but brilliant outgrowth of the candy/surprise-box houses they’d been making for some time. Colorful and delightful “eye-candy” on those open counters, they were an immediate sensation, hitting the American Christmas with all the impact that bubble lights enjoyed post-war.

There was such an explosion of creative genius and innovation put into these little dimestore notions that it is hard to comprehend! So many different kinds came out in such a short amount of time! Such creative and imaginative – sometimes even bizarre designs and handwork -june 2003 house of the month green spots produced in staggering quantities by virtual slave labor in conditions of abject misery.

It was unbelievable what you could buy for a quarter or a dime, so blissfully unaware what great suffering lay behind our delight in bright and inexpensive things. But they have forever made a place in the Christmas memories and traditions of so many American families. And like so many things we’ve loved – we did not begin to appreciate them ’till they were gone …or the untold thousands who produced our dimestore reveries in long days of misery and toil.

I am sorry if I darken the bright joy of these things for you. But these are the facts of it, and I believe the hundreds of dollars that serious collectors now pay for exceptional examples are quite justified. They cannot be produced again for anything like the pittance they brought to their creators then. That people suffered and perhaps even died in sweat-shop conditions producing them imparts a significance undeniable. It couldn’t have been total darkness, though. Not altogether. The sheer delightful whimsy of these little marvels shows that someone took considerable pleasure in their creation.

The End of an Era

made in occupied japan post war

WW II put the second bookend on this shining row. The period of the truly finest houses was less than ten years. By 1937, war was looming in minds everywhere. The trend was toward the “realistic,” and one sees it in the toys and model trains. Less the whimsical bright fantasies of earlier that decade, they were becoming models, now, and trending ever more toward scale and accurate detail. We had to be “realistic,” now. Put the childish fantasies away and view the dark clouds burgeoning with the clearest kind of eye.

Through the War and to the present day, Christmas village houses have continued in some form. They make some really nice ones even now, but it is not the same. The innocence and simplicity of those first Golden Days” when they were bright and newly born can never really be again.

Do you have an article you’d like us to publish as a guest column in The Collectors Weekly? Let us know.

17 comments so far

  1. Dianne Gray Says:

    This was a great article and the links I clicked on were interesting and enjoyable. It is so true that some of our parents had no idea that those of us who grew up enjoying the little village under the tree would want to not only cherish them as adults, but would pass them on to our families. Christmas Past is to be fondly remembered and some of the items that have made it to present day should be truly treasured.

    Thanks for a wonderful article.

    Dianne

  2. Jim Althof Says:

    My big brother wrote this elegantly brief artical on his “Smithonion Institute” version of collectable-vintage-cardboard=christmas-houses-&-villages. I know that his well written article is but a snowflake on the Greenland Glacier compared to the richness and good heartedness of his not-for-profit, just-for-joy, website. If his snowflake has tickled your nose, you must see his glacier of joy. Papa Ted, whom I have known all my life, is one of few Great Keepers of the Magic Window on Christmas Past.Do not miss an opportuny to visit his joy, he will gladly share a life’s work.

    As alway, an amazing work
    Doc “A”

  3. emily cameline Says:

    just started collecting–really love these little putz houses; i have 3.

  4. Arlene English Says:

    Thanks to Papa Ted for the great article and wonderful website! I have been in love with these beautiful little homes as long as I can remember. My grandmother and mother had invested in several sweet little houses long before I was born. My earliest and brightest Christmas memories include sitting by the Christmas village, reveling in its sparkling beauty, and imagining the fantasy world of the delightful people who must have lived there. Unfortunately, through my own fault (a sad story of irretrievable mistakes!), several of our cardboard houses were destroyed back in the late seventies. Since then, I have been collecting and restoring, I guess trying to recapture that early magic. My current houses are beautiful and well loved, but I believe I will always mourn for the treasures I let slip away!

  5. gary hanson Says:

    dear ted, i saw your article on the cardboard japanese dime store houses. i didn’t think anyone cared for these little house. to me they are very significant. i would like to share many of these christmas houses for your readers. i’m sure what they will see will bring back many fond memories. they defintly made my train display. my website-www.garythetrainguy.com & my u-tube is garythetrainman. with kind regards, gary hanson

  6. Pam Says:

    Not a comment, but I have a complete set of Putz xmas houses includes two churches and six houses with some of the brush xmas trees. They are from my mother who kept them in a divided box and put them out every xmas. just thought you would like to know. If anyone is interested I would be willing to sell them they are in excellant condition. Thank You; Pam

  7. Jane Says:

    How I loved these tiny houses in my youth in Pennsylvania. We bought them at Woolworth’s, and I too dreamed about the tiny families who lived in them, especially since they were soft colors of rose, yellow, blue, and so on, with those sparkly snow roofs. Christmas was magic then, even through WWII when my parents carefully saved each strand of tinsel icicles, each glass ball, and our wonderful silver metal bells, along with the teeny houses. But always my favorites were the houses, which disappeared sometime, probably when my parents moved to another state. I moved across the country to California, where everything was modern and nobody seemed to have ever heard of little cardboard houses. So, I started making my own, using pale blue poster board, with colored pencil drawings to make windows showing scenes of the rooms with Christmas trees and furniture, wreaths on the doors, and the ubiquitous bottle-brush trees. The most difficult was the town church with its tall spire, a rose window, (cruciform building) and gothic entry doors. Later, I used fine black ink pens to draw borders and trace the figures inside: cows peering out a window in the barn, cakes and sweets in the large bakery window, pets in the pet store window, etc. Those little German lead figures were just the right size to create scenes with ladies riding in horse-drawn sleighs and horse-drawn English red buses and ice skaters on the pond. . . . I never knew before reading your website that there were collectors and some of these putzes could be bought as old-time collectibles. Now I’m off to find out more.
    I am positive that our Christmas houses were NOT made in Japan, but didn’t realize they may have come from Germany — I always thought they were American, so cheap and considered rather kitschy. But I still love them even after 70 years!
    Thanks so much — I’d love to know more. Jane

  8. chris Bryan Says:

    Good article, I am interested in buying houses and churches. I also collect bottle brush trees

  9. Richard Says:

    Oh the memories! As a kid growing up in the 50′s I remember my grandparents’ Christmas village.Colorful cardboard houses,bottle brush trees,and a skating pond(mirror)replete with skaters and skiers made of lead.As my own children grew up we bought the Snow Village houses by Department 56,but split them up as they married and presented us with grandchildren.Now I am collecting the beautiful Cody Foster houses which are larger versions of the putz houses of the 20′s-30′s,and every bit as magical.I have added a skating scene identical to the one in pictures from Christmases past at my grandparents’ house by using lead based reproduction figures from the Barclay Company.It’s all about the memories for me now!

  10. China Tour Deals Says:

    Great job my friend. Thanks for a great blog. Keep up with the good work. Stan

  11. Candace Volz Says:

    I have my grandmother’s wooden Christmas Church with music box inside. It’s on a base, with wire brush trees- overall dimensions are approx. 10″ long x 10″ high x 6″ wide. Church windows are transparent paper in stained glass designs, glued in from behind. There’s a sprinkling of glitter snow over everything. It has a paper label on the bottom: Ell-Bee L. B. Goetschius Co. Hackensack, NJ I have the original shipping box- came from F.A.O. Schwarz Toys in NYC in 1941.
    I can’t find anything about this company or their products. This must be the type of Christmas “village” decor that appeared after the start of WWII stopped the importation of the Japanese paper houses.

  12. robert zimmerman Says:

    Own about 70 pre-war paper houses along with 15 composition houses and 5″grandfather”houses made from various wood scraps.Have just finished a vintage Christmas display at the Eckley Miner’s Village Museum near Hazleton,Pa.Ornaments,houses,people,animals,train,etc.date from 1900 to 1940.Invite the interested public to pay a visit to this state administered site. Viewing from now until Jan.15th.Bob Zimmerman,Weatherly,Pa.

  13. Virginia Traver Says:

    I hope Candace Volz sees this. Her comment is #11. My grandfather was L.B.Goetschius. He made wooden toys for FAO Schwarz from 1936 until 1970, first in Hackensack, NJ, and then from North Egremont, MA. He left Hackensack in 1942 and moved “up country.” It is wonderful to think, after all these years, that people are still enjoying his wonderfully crafted items.

  14. John W. Roat Says:

    Dime store houses are still being made in Haddonfiel N. J. in different sizes
    by hand for model railroads.

  15. Carol Rosenbaum Says:

    Love the history of these wonderful houses! I started collecting these houses about 1990, when I found some at a garage sale. Since then the number of my houses have grow, I add more every year. Just when I think I have enough and no room for more, I find another and do find I have room for just one more. My family would not think it was Christmas if I didn’t put up my village each year. They are the first to go up and the last to come down. I found the web site for making some, now I am in the process of making one for each member of my Quester group. It is a labor of love, I hope I inspire a love that will allow them to start collecting also!

  16. Cathy Stahl Says:

    I found your info. on the putz house very interesting and a good learning experience.
    I was born in 1955 and my parents always had a village of putz houses under our Christmas tree. I think I even have pictures of those wonderful days. Every year it was a must to set up these beautiful cardboard homes. Dad would always wire lights underneath the cotton to put through the holes that were in the back of these houses.
    During the early 1960′ s the putz houses started to show their age and the new Plasticville came out. So it was then the putz homes were packed away and the Plasticville village came to be under our tree looking just as nice as the putz village but with out the glitter. These houses of Plasticville I still have. My parents gave them to me after I had married because I was the only child out of 4 who would come at Christmas time and still set them up under their tree.
    My question to you is, I have 3 Czechoslovakia putz card board ornaments and can’t find any information on the ornaments. Can you tell me when Czecholsovakia started producing these? I am guessing they are from the 1950′s or 60′s though I saw that someone on ebay had one of these ornaments and had dated it from I think the 1920′s or 30′s. Do you know if these Czechoslovakia ornaments date back that far? I appreciate any information you may have on these little “putz’ ornaments.
    Cathy Stahl

  17. Paul Race Says:

    Sadly, we lost Papa Ted in October, 2012. At the moment, his site name is being squatted on by people promoting unrelated products, services, and scams. Fortunately, at Ted’s request, friends at CardboardChristmas.com established an archive of his web page before his death. The complete address of the web archive is:

    http://www.cardboardchristmas.com/papateds/

    Many of Ted’s longtime friends are contributing to the CardboardChristmas.com forums, so that’s a good place to find out what’s been happing in the world of putzes.


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