LovetoKnow recently had the opportunity to discuss Victorian miniature Christmas houses with Ted Althof, also known as "Papa Ted". He is an expert in the world of "putzes", or Christmas villages.
Getting to Know Papa Ted
LTK: What started your interest in Christmas houses?
Ted: Back in the early '70s I set up my boyhood Lionel train for my daughter. It was missing some cars and things, so I found an old, old dealership in Pittsburgh that had a vast stock of vintage trains. That really took me back and started me collecting old trains. I would run want ads. Many people would answer and say "Give me $XX and clean out the attic. Take it all or take nothing. I just want to be rid of it." So, I would end up with boxes of old Christmas stuff, too, and at first it seemed a nuisance.
Then I began to find things in those boxes that took me back even more - and things I never dreamed had existed. I started collecting old Christmas lights, houses, fences. Tons of books had been written about the trains, lights and ornaments but very little about the houses. So I took on the job. It was hard to track them down. They were dime store items without model numbers, identifiable manufacturers and so on. I had thought about it for years before the Internet was available. Then after I started the website, the contributions of fellow collectors in terms of pictures and knowledge began to come in.
The site grows monthly. It has become a collectibles book online. But unlike a book on paper, it's alive and can be revised and augmented constantly.
LTK: How many of these houses do you have in your personal collection?
Ted: Most of what you see on the website belongs to other collectors. You might say I collect collectors. We pool our knowledge on the site. I might have perhaps a hundred or so really nice ones of my own - and lots of junk.
LTK: Do you have a favorite?
Ted: Oh, that would be impossible to say. It would be like picking out one of your children.
Collecting Victorian Miniature Christmas Houses
LTK: What years were the houses made?Ted: That too big a subject to cover here. Consult my website. They start in about 1928, and had pretty much died out by 1970.
LTK: What should a novice collector look for when buying Victorian miniature Christmas houses?
Ted: Style and complexity. The houses made in the 1930s were rich in features and fanciful details. After WWII they just keep getting plainer and simpler and less interesting.
LTK: What is the price range of these houses?
Ted: Anywhere from 50 cents to the record so far on an eBay auction when one house went for $1,467. Another of the same type house appeared again on eBay a year later and only got $114. It is truly the "luck of the draw." - how many people show up at the auction and how earnestly they bid against you.
LTK: Are there any that are unusual or rare?
Ted: Most of them are. The best Christmas houses are from the early 1930s.
LTK: How should one care for them?
- Don't get them wet.
- Keep them out of direct sunlight and dust.
- Do not subject them to tiny kids and puppies.
LTK: What about storage?
Ted: I keep mine in old flea-market suitcases wrapped in tissue paper. Some collectors I know use those big plastic storage tubs. They take up a lot of room, actually. You can't squash them down at all, and they have such irregular shapes.
LTK: Are there any "fakes" of these collector's items?
Ted: I haven't seen any outright counterfeits yet. Considering you don't know what you'll get for them, it probably isn't worth the time it would take. There's an awful lot of handwork that went into these things originally, considering the prices they got for them in the old dime stores. There are a lot of cardboard Chinese houses coming out now, but there is a difference. The Japanese had a very special talent for this. I consider it an art form. If somebody truly reproduced those fine ones from the early 1930's I'd buy them new! But not at eBay prices ....
LTK: If so, how does one spot the fake?
Ted: Mostly I would think of fakes as when somebody has goofed-up an original with a bad paint job. You have to have gotten some first-hand experience with originals to get a feel for this. Also, there are thousands pictured on the website that should give a novice a good idea what they were supposed to look like.
LTK: Are there any books that you would recommend to the collector?
Ted: Well no, not really. As I said there are shelves of books on trains, ornaments and old Christmas lights, but I think I am the first to really take on the job of chronicling the houses and - in all honesty - think I am the most comprehensive source of information available. At least. I have seen no collectibles books on the subject anywhere and none of my fans have reported any. Every year I have been expecting some Chinese printing outfit to just pirate my whole website and put it out in book form, but so far that hasn't happened.
LTK: Do you know of any place that collectors could go to get a valuation on their Victorian miniature Christmas houses?
Ted: Watching eBay auctions has been the best in the past, but there haven't been as many on this year. "Pickin's" were unusually slim. I know a lot of my fans have told me that they do not like eBay's ever-increasingly restrictive payment policies. As with most antiques and collectibles - there is no fixed value. The circumstances of every "buy" will vary at every find you make.
For more information about miniature Victorian Christmas houses, as well as some amazing images you will want to check out Ted's website, Papa Ted's Place.