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