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Monday, December 5, 2011

History of Dimestore Christmas Village Houses

This article appeared in The Collector's Weekly and I decided to share. I have sold many of these thru the years and could usually guess age by looking at them but this now confirms. Thats what I love about Antiques and Collectibles, there is always something to learn.
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 Christmas 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 industries, enabling both to bloom and thrive.

Prior to WWI, 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 Christmas 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 Christmas tree ornaments. Demand was instantaneous and insatiable. The words “German” and “Christmas” became synonymous.
WWI 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 Christmas 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.
Cardboard Village Houses Arrive: The Prewar Period
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.
The End of an Era
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 model 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.

Through 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.
Sears Wishbook Catalog 1949
The 1950-1955 Era Houses were made bigger
1955 Sears Wishbook Catalog

Some of the largest and nicest pieces of the "Last Hurrah" are the COTTON-TOPPERS. These are definitely postwar, but harken back to some of the sizes and earliest structural features of the prewar - and also especially the figures and cotton-batting roofs which were commonly found on '20's candy-boxes. Some of the churches are remarkably large and resplendent and some are of wholly new design. The huge church rear center is 15" tall! The Cotton-Topper group is very heavy on large churches. I am not sure of the exact year, but it's a big part of that "Last Hurrah" of the mid '50s. Right now I'm betting on 1955.
The 1960's:

This is where it ends - in the 60's-
-like one of those rivers that runs out into the desert , growing thinner and thinner- and finally just disappearing into the sand..........
I guess when you think about it, they didn't fit with Eammes and Danish Modern furniture. "MOD" clothes and all that slick, urbane stuff on TV. They were anything but "cool" as it was thought of then.
Also in the 60's you started seeing sets that lit up.
Here is the later version.
In the mid 60's thru 1970's th Italians came out with their version, not called Alpine Village. The Italian village set shown below is remarkable in that the covers are all light cardboard,the tiny buildings quite interesting and well detailed in and of themselves. But the box says "Genuine Italian Novelty "Lights". Though they do make a cute little town under a small table-top tree. The only problem is that the buildings are so light that the stiffness of the wire makes it difficult to set them level and looking right and have them stay that way.


  1. We still have some of the from the late 50's / early 60's that graced my parent's village under the tree.

    1. Always great memories! My parents had some under the tree also but noone knows what happened to them. So of course then I had to start collecting some myself.

  2. Thanks for sharing your information. I bought an alpine village this Christmas at a local thrift store. It lights up and is in excellent shape. It was a big hit with our company.

  3. Thanks for this great article. My Mum had a set of Italian lights that were really tiny - much too small to be set up as a village. I think she got them in the late 50's. What was different about them at the time was that they had the miniature size lights that we use today inside them. They were made of some type of cellulose - VERY detailed and included cottage-style houses, some with gardens, some with courtyards, to turrets with banners and even one flower house. Sadly they were lost in a flood. I've been looking for some ever since, but have not even come across a picture.

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