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LATEST SPOTLIGHT_________________________________

Little World Under the Christmas Tree
by Bob Brooke
 

Christmas villages have been in existence for centuries. But cardboard Christmas houses have only been around 130 years or so. And cardboard Christmas houses made to glow from electric light bulbs have only been around since about 1928, when electric light strands, became affordable.



How It All Began
German-Americans began the tradition of putting little houses under their Christmas trees in the late 19th century. They called this a “putz” and often placed these houses around their creches.



Between 1910 and 1960, many families set houses, scenery, and other accessories around their train sets, Nativity displays, and/or Christmas trees. These displays paid little attention to scale or time period. It wouldn't have been unusual to see the three Wise Men crossing in front of a Lionel station, for example. And, in many homes, the display took up the whole living room.

Between 1880 and 1928, most cardboard Christmas houses were actually candy boxes shaped like houses that came off their bases to reveal candies and small presents. Candy/surprise boxes took the shapes of Santas, boots, snowmen and all kinds of things, including chimneys, houses and castles.

But the real revolution came when Japanese manufacturers started putting holes in the back of houses for C-6 light bulbs.

After that, there was an explosion of variety, mostly from anonymous Japanese designers who produced some remarkable pieces which sold for five or ten cents. But World War II interrupted Japan’s near-monopoly on these houses. Meanwhile, American companies like Dolly Toys created their own versions, working around wartime limitations on materials.



Manufacturers made many of these inexpensive houses of pasteboard, then sprinkled them with glitter. At first there was no sparkle but later on they did just that. Actually, they used crushed mica not glitter. They also used crushed shells. Some putz houses had cotton batting “snow,” while others had a kind of coating that looked like shredded coconut.

Some of these structures had flat roofs with "parapets," which the designers probably thought imitated Bethlehem architecture to attract nativity-minded customers. And since many people used these little houses with a train set under the Christmas tree, some makers produced houses to go with toy trains.

Once inexpensive Christmas tree lights and electric trains became available to the average family, the "candy/surprise" boxes evolved into the electrically illuminated ones.
To accommodate the new sets of lights, both Japanese and American houses came in sets of eight after 1928 and were sold in 5 & 10-cent and department stores.

Printies
Printies had lithographed brick sides or plain colors with lithographed stone masonry around the doors and windows. The roofs were glossy with hand-painted snow and glitter effects. Houses had fence posts made of wood, round, half-round or square. Sometimes makers strung iron wire between. Bases for the printies could be either flat or a box. Many times the same style house could be found as a candy or "surprise" box, too.

Gloss-Tops
Another variation of the Christmas houses was the Gloss-Top or G.T. They appeared about two years after the Printies and had glossy, shellacked roofs with the snow hand-painted over it. Shiny roofs on these houses lasted only into the early 1930's: Shredded cellophane floss, with painted and glittered “snow,” replaced them.

The bodies of the large G.T.s could be squarish and blocky. Also, the big ones seldom had fences and yard details, while the smaller card-based ones often did. The finish of the bodies and bases was flat and lacking in texture, except for a very fine sand.

Sets of 8, corresponding to the number of lights in a Christmas string, continued up to the "medium" base sizes of about 5.5" by 4". Stores sometimes sold houses of that size and larger individually boxed. They often broke up sets and discard the flimsy set boxes as shipping materials and set the pieces out to sell individually. Really large houses often came individually boxed, and more of these boxes seem to have survived.

Haciendas
The largest Christmas houses, called Haciendas because their hot colors and the odd stucco portico walls, suggested an Hispanic or Southwestern flavor. The Haciendas had varied and creative porticoed walls, resembling adobe, painted by hand with watercolor wash to achieve a color gradiency found on no other style of house. Also, fired bisque figures first appeared with the Haciendas amd could be found on all but the smallest. The Haciendas first appeared in 1935.



Though imported putz houses reappeared after World War II, American’s love of these little Christmas houses and the communities they created eventually waned, when other interests, like television, consumed the time that families used to spend setting up and rearranging the little houses and accessories.


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