From sitting on brick firework mantles to placed underneath genuine fir Christmas trees, people have been displaying their ceramic or plastic holiday town scenes for decades. However, that uniquely colored snow-capped town you lovingly surround with fake snow from the dollar store might actually be filled with antique Christmas houses from yore.
Traditional Christmas Villages or Putzs
From its early beginnings in the communities of the Moravian Dutch settlers of Pennsylvania, to the elaborate winter villages popular in the 1950s and 1960s, miniature holiday scenes have captivated the imaginations of young and old alike. Traditionally, each holiday scene is known as a putz which comes from the German word putzen meaning to place or to put. Other popular names for these tiny holiday towns include Christmas Gardens and Train Gardens.
Japanese Manufactured Christmas Houses Are Introduced
Prior to the late-1920s, putz houses were homemade and crafted from paper, wood, or cardboard. In the latter part of the decade, cardboard boxes shaped as tiny Victorian houses and log cabins were placed under the Christmas tree holding holiday candy and other small goodies. The first documented examples of these Japanese pasteboard houses that're known of were imported in 1928. During the tail-end of the Jazz age, these adorable little buildings were sold in the Sears & Roebuck and the Montgomery and Ward catalogs, as well as at F.W. Woolworth 5 & 10 cent stores.
Antique Japanese Christmas Houses Through the Years
From 1928 to the beginning of World War II, Japanese pasteboard Christmas houses were made in a multitude of styles and designs. Over the course of those few years, the Victorian houses always remained a popular style--a trend that would continue into modern Christmas celebrations. However, by the end of the 1930s, with war looming in United States, the arts turned towards the realistic, and these arts and crafts style of decorations were no longer as popular as they once were.
These different types of pasteboard houses included:
Lithograph Prints (1928-1930)
These houses had sides in plain colors with lithographed masonry work around the windows and doors or lithographed brick. A hand painted snowy roof appears to sparkle from the effect of glitter with glitter.
Gloss Tops (1930-1933)
Gloss tops feature lacquered roofs painted over to look like they're covered in snow. The walls are generally a solid color. Similarly to these Gloss Tops were some glitter houses that incorporated crushed mica and shells to bring the magic of the season to life.
Candy Boxes (1920s-1934)
Made with a base and a yard, these little houses were much different from the box houses of the early 1900s. They were designed in such a way that their exteriors could be lifted off of the base to reveal a compartment that could store candy for the little children, seen in this early-1920s candy box house equipped with Santa Claus himself out front.
These houses were coated with a shiny resin substance called shellac that's found on all sorts of antique goods, most often on furniture. Interestingly, this shellac was a wonderful tool that the Japanese manufacturers used as it could create a high-quality shine using only a thin layer.
These houses were thought to be covered with cellulose that was finely shredded and often brightly colored. While the houses don't actually bear any obvious similarities to coconut, the textural effect of this shredded cellophane does, hence its unique name. However, after a lot of scientific testing on extant putz houses, it was determined that this supposed cellulose material was actually made out of rice straw. This was an abundant and easily manipulated material across the Asian continent in countries with large rice production, meaning that Japanese putz makers would've had an easier time getting this materials than others.
These houses were made in very bright colors and had cardboard sides that resembled stucco. In an almost shredded fashion, these pieces of cardboard were affixed to the putz houses and painted over to create the visual effect of traditional stucco, as you can see with this vibrant set of 1950s antique Christmas houses currently listed on eBay.
Antique Putz Christmas Houses Resources
Despite being a rather niche antique interest, there're several dedicated projects that host valuable information and pictures that highlight these Japanese putz houses from all sorts of different styles and decades for free.
One wonderful and magical website with a spectacular collection and display of antique Christmas houses belongs to novelist Antoinette Stockenberg. Stockenberg's hobby of collecting Japanese made pre World War II putz houses, including many fabulous examples of Victorian miniature houses, turned into a multi-media project that involved her creating miniature worlds on the mantels in her home. Her displays are complete with appropriate accessories for the period, bottle brush tress and antique German lead flats, called zinnfiguren.
The most recent display Stockenberg's created comes from 2020 and features multiple different houses including ones that sport things like a clock tower and a steeple. To view previous years' displays, simply scroll to the bottom of the page and follow each year's hyperlink.
Victorian Antique Christmas Houses Online
If you've never heard of these quaint Christmas decorations, then you'll be surprised to discover that there's actually a substantial number of them for sale across various online platforms, including such sites as:
- Ruby Lane - One of the internet's largest antique auction websites, Ruby Lane has a few of these putz houses for sale. However, these homemade-style pieces aren't like their typical products, meaning that you shouldn't expect their inventory to drastically change from day-to-day.
- eBay - If you're looking for one of these putz houses and you want to find them quick, head on over to eBay. They have an incredibly large inventory that they source from, and their sellers are constantly updating their listings to offer you new selections every day.
- Etsy - Etsy is a wonderful site to find both antique, vintage, and newly crafted examples of putz houses. If you're interested in finding a variety of pieces for your collection, you should head on over to this e-commerce giant.
Don't Be a Putz, Buy a Putz
From its early days as a dime store Christmas decoration to becoming a highly sought after antique collectible, antique Christmas houses are tiny treasures from years gone by that can brighten up your Christmas decor with their vibrant colors and homemade appeal.