Note: This is an archive of "Papa" Ted Althof's online tribute to cardboard Christmas "putz" houses and their history. At Ted's request, this archive was established in early 2012. Except for critical updates and announcements, it will remain as Ted left it in October, 2012.
For more information, please scroll to the bottom of the page.

Christmas website banner
Graphic by Chris Althof
*Categories / History*
(This is actually a book under construction that I am sharing as it grows. You may enjoy it and print out a copy for your own use, but I do retain all intellectual property rights regarding further publication of all or any part if the material herein contained. Copyright 2000, Theodore H. Althof,Jr.)

The 1920's
The 1930's
* WW II *

candy striped line

How old are they?
What do we call them?
Christmas "Archaeology"

This section is more or less the "Hub" - giving some background and dispatching you to the many and varied sections of our little Online "Museum" -a history of these wonderous little artifacts - a history devoted to establishing some way of categorizing the various styles with type-names we can talk about and dating them into some sort of chronological perspective.

It's a tall chore, because these were small-change notions, not expensive enough nor considered serious enough to impart model numbers, cataloging ,and so forth by those who made them - such as has been the case with domestic items - electric trains and American toys in particular. European products were mostly well documented. Even the cheapest 59-cent light sets had numbers that collectors could refer to, and much had already been written on those subjects. Not so the little houses - especially the Japanese houses. To this day, no Japanese OEM product line catalogs have been turned up, (At least by me!) No decipherable model numbers or manufacturers names. Almost nothing from their source. What little space had been devoted to the houses in the collectibles books was far from complete, - a few scattered reference here and there - and rife with errors. So, after decades of thinking about it, in 2,000 AD I decided to tackle the subject in an ever-growing repository of knowledge online. It meant coming up with new systems and methods of obtaining evidences of dates, sources and so on. As far as I'm concerned, though,, the sleuthing has been addictive! I cannot lay it down... and I have found that many of you feel the same!

Because of the doors and windows, styles and methods of construction - I was always convinced that a single Japanese company made them all. But until October of 2009, I could not find the name of that company, even with a solid contact in the Japanese Business Embassy in Detroit. Beginning in the early '60s, Japan became and remains anxious to dump her old image as "Queen of Kitch" and be "high tech" of image all the way. They will not dig into this past, will not assist in reviving it in any way. They seem ashamed of this wonderful artistry and not to understand the beloved contribution they have made to our American Christmas. What a pity, but by sheer luck and perseverance the name has turned up at last!- thanks to Rob Schoeberlein who found this lable on the bottom of one of his old Christmas houses:
Kanematsu Co. Ltd., Kobe 
It's the "Holy Grail" we have all been looking for all these years! There appears to be an initial missing on a fragment long gone, but we have the main name and the location! Kobe! I shudder to recall a History Channel documentary I saw on the atomic bombing of Japan. Kobe was on the list. What determined which of about 10 cities fell victim to the bombs was the weather. Had Kobe not been under a solid overcast on either of those fateful days, we might well have had no postwar dimestore houses from Japan to carry forth the memory and tradition.
Kanematsu Christmas house
And this is the modest prewar Christmas house that carried the secret all these years. We've seen many secondary names of wholesalers and importers attached to these houses over the years, but never before the true source. So that's it, folks! All the wonderful little Japanese houses came from Kobe in Japan! I wonder if Kanematsu, Ltd. is still in business? And, if so, what are they making now? Well, the answer is "Yes, they are - and seem to be globally diversified into almost everything but holiday notion items. Even in the prewar years their involvement in the Christmas houses appears to have been just a minor subsidiary. Here's a link to other links about them:


There is nothing in any of the informations proffered that says anything about notion Christmas items, is there? F. Kanematsu appears to deal globally - then and now - in raw materials and highly technical things. Rob Shoeberlein, who works for the Maryland State Archives, has also sent me a cover photo of, and a page from "The Japan Trading Guidance- 1920." It is simply a directory of Japanese Companies wishing to export all kinds of things wherein is listed an "S." Kanematsu - also of Kobe. Just a cryptic couple of lines: "Kanematsu Shoten: 3-chrome. Kaipan-dori." - whatever that means. So, the search is far from over. We've really just found
the tip of a new "iceberg."

But I think I have managed to gather a fair amount of knowledge of which styles originated in which years of the history through little clues and evidences that have provided some telling insights along the way. The most reliable facts and datings must (and do) come from the most unexpected sources, such as a date scribbled on the bottom of a house or other item in with a box of houses, on the back of old snapshots, in musty old catalogs or hiding in a bushel of old Christmas "junk." I am always on the search for such clues and evidences, so if anything of this kind turns up for you, I hope you will share! This story is becoming evermore complete, but is FAR from over! Much is yet to be discovered.....
... so if any such clues should turn up for you, please e-mail your information and/or pictures to me at:

Christmas tree graphic

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 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 industies, 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 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 ornaments. Demand was instantaneous and insatiable. The words "German" and "Christmas" became synonymous.

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 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.

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.

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 - 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 pitance 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.

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 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.

Thru 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.

- T.H. Althof ....."Papa" Ted -

Christmas trees

PLEASE NOTE: The houses shown on this website are NOT FOR SALE. I don't even own most of them. The pictures have been contributed by numerous collectors.

For information about this site, please contact us at:

Copyright 2000-2012 Theodore H. Althof,Jr.Except where noted, the contents of this website and all it's pages and submissions therein contained are the intellectual property of Theodore H.Althof,Jr. All rights are reserved. (Background musical selections are,of course, excepted.)
This archive was set up at Ted's request in early 2012, and, except for critical updates and
announcements, will remain as Ted left it in October, 2012.
The archive is kept online with the help of volunteers from the following affiliated sites and resources:
- Christmas Memories and Collectibles -
Visit the FamilyChristmasOnline site. Visit our collection of resources for collecting, restoring, and making your own cardboard Christmas houses. Return to the OldChristmasTreeLights Welcome page Visit Howard Lamey's glitterhouse gallery, with free project plans, graphics, and instructions. Visit Papa Ted Althof's extensive history and collection of putz houses, the largest and most complete such resource on the Internet. Craft and collectibles blog with local news of Croton NY.
- Family Activities and Crafts -
Click to see reviews of our favorite family-friendly Christmas movies. Free, Family-Friendly Christmas Stories Decorate your tree the old-fashioned way with these kid-friendly projects. Free plans and instructions for starting a hobby building vintage-style cardboard Christmas houses. Free building projects for your vintage railroad or Christmas village. Click to find free, family-friendly Christmas poems and - in some cases - their stories.
- Trains and Hobbies -
Visit the Internet's largest resource on choosing and displaying Christmas trains. Visit Lionel Trains. Click to see Thomas Kinkaded-inspired Holiday Trains and Villages.
Learn about backyard railroading with Family Garden Trains
Click to see HO scale trains with your favorite team's colors.
Resources for O gauge and On30 model railroading
- Music -
Carols of many countries, including music, lyrics, and the story behind the songs Wax recordings from the early 1900s, mostly collected by George Nelson.  Download them all for a 'period' album.
Best-loved railroad songs and the stories behind them.
Heartland-inspired music, history, and acoustic instrument tips. Own a guitar, banjo, or mandolin?  Want to play an instrument?  Tips to save you money and time, and keep your instrument playable.
The struggles and influences of early Jesus Musicians and others who laid the groundwork for the Christian music and worship that is part of our lives today.