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 exactly as Ted left it in October, 2012.
For more information, please scroll to the bottom of the page.

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It's a folk form of assemblage art, a composition of found or handmade objects to create a miniature world of fantasy, and anything long as it works for your imagination. It has to imprint on you during a narrow window in your preschool years, or probably you won't get it. It's the Moms that do it. Dad sets up the trains (if any), but Mom creates "The Village." I know that's how it got forever into me.


"Putz" is from the German verb "putzen" - to "put things in place and order" or to "brighten up a living space" And that's just exactly what it is. You put things under the tree - and you keep putting them there until you have created a little world all of it's own. The Italians have long had their elaborate Nativities, but it's the Moravian Germans who are credited with importing their custom of building little worlds beneath the tree into America - a decade or so before our Civil War, before Christmas was even a big deal with us. It was a competitive thing among them, much as outdoor light displays are nowadays - each household trying to outdo the others. Anything that even remotely fit their themes (mostly Garden of Eden or Noah's Ark, then) was incorporated, and anything animated was highly prized. Reports are of some bringing tons of dirt rocks and collected living moss into the living room to make mountains and running water through hoses from barrels of water in the attic - to make rivers and turn millwheels and cranks to make things move. All this before electricity and even indoor plumbing! Homemade-handcarved stuff was gradually invaded by the "storebought" as manufactured toys and novelties grew more plentiful and varied. By 1895, when the Maerklin Brothers introduced their revolutionary sectional toy train track at the Nuremberg Toy Fair - making rail-run model trains a practical consumer reality for the first time - trains were a perfect "natural" for the putz. By then, the Late Victorian Era, the American Christmas was in full swing and the under-the-tree display had become widely adopted. Thus, model railroading, in all it's forms and gauges, was born under the Christmas tree.

The occassional hardcore scale modeler will invariably stop by and say "But, it isn't realistic!"
To this I reply:

"Reality I can get anyplace; - this is CHRISTMAS!"

Here are some shots of previous putzes of my own - starting with the 1975 layout. Everything had been gleaned from flea markets, train shows and antique shops and such, the main requirement that everything be of those rich "dimestore" times. I am just old enough to have seen the tail-end of that era as a child and wanted my kid to see it, too. <

By the way - if any of you out there are doing this sort of thing,too, I am soliciting pictures to post here. Send them to me by e-mail, please!

Christmas putz photo
Christmas cat graphic 1975: It was a good thing I took these pictures when I did. The "mountain" is just a bedsheet over various sized cardboard boxes and to the left both trains have portals entering "the tunnel."Unknown at the time, my daughter's old cat decided he loved to crawl in through the back and sleep on the tracks. I had just set the camera aside when some people came and wanted to see the big old Lionel Standard gauge (the grey one) run. Not knowing where the cat was, I cranked up the transformer handle, the big old #10 and cars rolled massively around front - past the station, over the bridge and around behind. Suddenly the entire side of that mountain came exploding outward like Mt.St. Helens. A sheet tore across the room and down the cellar stairs. Trees and houses everywhere. #10 and cars all askew. It took a day to put it back together and it wasn't quite the same. Thereafter, we always checked the tunnel ....

vintage train layout photo
A better view of Santa's herd of celluloid reindeer following him out of? or into? -the barn. Also,a closer view of some of the houses and the 0 gauge train.

vintage Christmas village photo
It's a little hard to get good putz pictures in the dark when they are most charming. I must apologize for the quality of these. I had to have 20 year-old negatives put on CD to get them on the site.

Christmas train village photo
The classic Lionel #115 station, of course, but note the cheap dimestore lawn ornaments and fountain! They make this little microcosm special. That's a big part of pre-war putzing. Real train accessories and scenery were terribly expensive and the few you had could be supplemented from the five-and-ten. Anything even reasonably appropriate was fair game. And the trees! Trees make the putz live. I think that is the best lesson learned from setting up this putz. What they really do best is - if properly grouped - form visual-psychological barriers that separate small thematic areas, making them seem as complete places far apart. Thus, in this small 6' X 7' area there seems to be a whole world with distinct, distant destinations - each embued with it's own individuality. You cannot get enough trees ...

Old Christmas putz photo
That "Old Mill" is a treasure. Entirely hand made, hand carved - the mechanism driven by a 1920's battery Erector Set motor. The windows are actual stained glass fragments and a system of mirror bits inside directs the light from a single flashlight bulb around to all of them , and even up the chimney. A long labor of love for someone long ago....

Store Window
Christmas store window putz
The front window of Ron Craft's "Olde Main Street" shop in Hastings, MN last year. Parade of Barclays down in front. Some great houses up above. Original Noma bubble-light tree to the left. Oviously, Ron shares our obsession. Great job, Ron! Sure beats hell out of walking into a Wal-Mart, doesn't it?

tiny table-top putz
A putz needn't be huge to be magical.I did this little one on top of our old TV under my 3-foot feather tree. The tiny German windup train is from the 1920s and hasn't run in years, but so what? You can't really see them when they're moving, anyway.

feather-tree putz
1984: Very simple putz that year. The thought was to emulate an early 1920s layout, with the primitive Lionel#51 steam switcher pulling celluloid Santa in the tender and a #182 observation car. The soft glow of the lamps on the old Lionel #124 station comes from ancient early "egg" type carbon Christmas tree lights with carbon filaments and pointed exhaust tips. There's the old mill again, all lit up. Frontal view this time.I never do a putz without it.


*FOOTNOTE: The handle "Papa" Ted is not something with which I crowned myself. In the mid-'80s when my grandkids were just learning to talk, both my Dad and I were present in their lives. I was in my forties; he had white hair. They couldn't quite make out their relationship to us and so made up their own names that made sense of it for them. Dad they called "Grampoo," - and I was "Papa Ted."


I am missing the negatives from a number of my putzes. Still on the search. I wanted to do 1976 for you, especially. They may turn up. I didn't always do putzes after that. My folks became ill and passed away over two of the intervening Christmas Seasons. My daughter seldom comes. She always lives so far away, but she and family did come for .....

Various views

Christmas train layout
By this time I had the the putz up off the floor. Unseen are half a ton of concrete blocks and bricks holding the whole thing up, tree included.

Christmas trains
#253 - the Lionel (from the 1975 putz) peeking out of the "High Track Tunnel," Lionel #258 early steamer coming 'round behind the station.

tinplate Christmas train display
Lionel classic streamliner "The Flying Yankee" in the foreground(1935-41), #258 pulling around out of the tunnel from the inside.(1931-32)Brass observation platform of the #253 set just visible on the high track.(late '20s.)

Chistmas trains layout
Packing three separate train circuits into such a tight space didn't leave much room for houses, but some ...

Christmas train putz
I made the tower about 1973. Modeling plywood, basswood timbering, real stained glass shards in the windows - and that's a real clock mechanism, taken from a travel alarm. I had some idea of coming up with an entire Elizabethan village, but then the train thing hit me - and you know the rest.....


That's about it for my own putzes, I'm afraid. The '94 is still up the living room, though of course the tree is long gone. I put the houses and a lot of things away to protect from dust. My cat Angel was born under the platform. I use it to test trains and, in truth - I just don't know where else to put it!
So, I will depend on you to send me pictures of your own. Dig out old negatives and home photos - the older the better, black and white OK - get them put on disk, take new ones. I hope that we can keep on growing this feature.

The Alleger Collection:

On Christmas Morning 1959, Mr. Alleger (then aged 3) received the train and village pieces you see here from Santa. The family has kept it all together all these years to set up for Christmas. He had always thought the train was new, but learned fairly recently from his mother that his Dad had bought all the stuff together from a classified newspaper ad, 2nd-hand.

Christmas trains and village
Indeed, one look at that Lionel #2026 engine told me it was pre-1950 because of the steel-rim "tires" on the big driver wheels. Starting in 1950, the Lionels no longer had them. And, almost everything else you see on this layout is from the late forties, quite likely all bought the same year (my guess -1949)-maybe even from the same store - by the original owner. Just a very few pieces appear to have been added by the Allegers. So what we have here is most unusual - a very pure window on what was available in the stores ca. 1949. Most putzes are a conglomeration of stuff collected over years, even decades - but this is almost like a "putz fossil," all the parts of one thing of a singular point in time preserved together.

Christmas train village

Besides all that, this is a great little putz! Lot's of distinct little microcosmic scenes - each of it's own interest, in a very small area! Look at this excellent grouping of slush-cast figures! The Barclays are having a skating party! This scene is alive. It tells a story; you can almost hear them and see them move! Excellent use of trees, I might add.

Christmas train village
Another angle on that Barclay snow party. Looks like that large "apartment" building could make good use of a set of our "CEL-13" windows, but is in fine shape otherwise.

vintage Lionel Trains Christmas putz
Another "place" with a story. What a great collection of Barclay figures!

vintage tinplate trains display
This big church shows you could still get some quite decent large houses in the late '40s. This same basic structure is a pre-War carryover. It's even got some "coco" on the roofs!

Christmas train setup

Here's the whole of it at a little distance. Very compact, really, but that one corner is just packed full of Christmas!

The Alleger Christmas!

Thank you so much for this contribution! It's a very lovely set, and now shared by many others who love this sort of thing.

Xmas holly bar graphic

Old and Absent Putz

vintage Christmas photo antique Christmas photo

This photo is sometime in the mid twenties of my grandmothers Christmas. She decorated quite a bit especially later on. Notice the old paper mache Santa standing on something to the right of the paper fireplace. I remember it well.
I guess you noticed that there were no little houses. Grandma Hull did have some early printies she displayed as a village despite not having electricity, of which I have a surviving one (It happened to be my favorite when I was little. Don't know what happened to the others.) So if this photo is 1925 or 26 then grandmas early style houses must have come after that. Your dating of 1929 is likely right on the money. ....Tom Hull

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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.)

Note: This archive was set up at Ted's request in early 2012, and, except for critical updates and
announcements, will remain exactly as Ted left it in October, 2012.
The archive is kept online with the help of volunteers from:

Visit the FamilyChristmasOnline site for Christmas music, stories, craft resources and much more.
Visit the OldChristmasTreeLights site for the history of Christmas tree lighting, including Bubble Lights and more.
Visit our collection of resources for collecting, restoring, and making your own cardboard Christmas houses.
Visit Howard Lamey's glitterhouse gallery, with free project plans, graphics, and instructions.
Check out  a very active, quality craft and collectibles blog (with local news of Croton NY).
Resources for making seasonal villages and model railroads for O, S, and On30 model railroading