What is a Glitterhouse?:
Originally published on BigIndoorTrains.com, September, 2008. Used by Permission
Christmas villages in one shape or another have been around 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 for the average family.
Many baby boomers remember their family building little communities around their nativity, Christmas tree, or train set at the holidays. Quite a few remember including inexpensive, glitter-sprinkled buildings made of pasteboard and imported from Japan.
Our family had at least two very small sets that were probably postwar, but apparently the best sets were made in the 1930s. I actually haven't thought about them for decades. Then I was contacted by Howard Lamey, a fellow who builds these little houses as a hobby. Howard put me in touch with some prominent collectors, and I began to realize that the little cardboard Christmas houses were far more widespread and more important to mid-20th-century Christmas celebrations than I had thought.
The First "Christmas Villages"
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 Wise Men crossing in front of a Lionel station, for example. And, in many homes, the display took up the whole room (often a parlor). They've been called "Christmas Gardens," "Train Gardens," and other things, but the strangest name I've heard for them is "putz."
It turns out that many German-Americans used the term "putz" the way we might use the term "putter." As in "Are you going to quit putzing around with those light strands and decorate the tree already?" During Christmas, many families "putzed" around with the Nativity display and the makeshift community around it right up until Christmas day. So the Nativity and anything set up around it came to be called the "putz." In families without a Nativity display, the putz might be set up around the train set or the Christmas tree.
What is a Putz House?
The Christmas Garden/Train Garden/Putz tradition was probably well in place before Japanese paste-board houses arrived in this country. But they caught on immediately.
According to our hobby’s most active collector and historian, the late “Papa” Ted Althof, cardboard houses made to be filled with candy were around in the late 1800s. But the "breakthrough" came when Japanese-made pasteboard houses started coming with colored celophane windows and a hole in the back for electric Christmas tree lights, which were just becoming available to most families. This breakthrough may have occurred in the mid-1920s. But the earliest definite catalog listing Ted can find of such a set comes from 1928.
At first there was no sparkle to speak of - evidently it took the cardboard houses a few years to evolve into the sparkly buildings most of us remember today. And it wasn’t glitter, technically. Crushed mica was probably the most popular sparkly finish, and crushed shells were also used. Some putz houses had cotton batting “snow,” and others had a kind of coating that looked for all the world like shredded coconut. During his liftime, Ted Ted has catalogued an amazing variety of these things and attempted to narrow down which kinds were made in which years. So, when you visit our archive of his site, be certain to check his history pages.
On that note, I have noticed that some of these structures had flat roofs with "parapets." I suspect that the designers thought they were imitating Bethlehem architecture to attract nativity-minded customers. On the other hand, Ted has found a line or two that look like they were made specifically to go with toy trains. So it's possible that the designers had both nativity-users and train-users in mind. Either way, the putz soon took on a "life of its own" in many homes.
Where Did They Come From, Anyway?
Ted also tried, unsuccessfully, to find out who was designing all of these wonderful structures in pre-war Japan. He did learn that the factories were very cruel places to work, a sad, ironic, footnote to this history. But if you know anything about the Japanese designers, please contact us and help us give credit where credit is due.
Putz houses are becoming recognized collectibles (some of the unique buildings are in high demand). One person with a unique collection is author Antoinette Stockenberg. A small photo of one of her putzes is shown on the Contact page.
In addition, Cardboard Christmas contributor Howard Lamey and several others are building replicas for families and friends. They have experimented with modern materials to find out what materials best give the "look and feel" of the originals; yet each creation is unique.
Finally, thanks to a three-plus-year collaboration between Howard Lamey and Paul Race, a wealth of information on building your own glitterhouses and accessories is available. Thanks to encouragement from Howard, Tom Hull, and others, many collectors and other folks have tried their hand at building their own cardboard Christmas houses. Our forums include examples of some of these great efforts.
If you have photos of your putz house collections or projects that you would like to share with our readers, please contact us, and pass along as much information about your houses as you can. We'll be sure to give credit where it is due.
History pages you should find useful include:
We will be adding other pages as time permits, but these should give you a very solid background as you start collecting or building your own cardboard Christmas houses.