In all of my collection there is not a single house
marked "Made in Occupied Japan." Throughout my collecting years
, I had seen one or two very tiny flat-based and uninteresting simple houses marked
Occupied Japan, but they were actually tree ornaments and not
strictly village houses. Just recently, however, a few medium sized box-based
examples of the 4 1/2 by 3" to near 6"sizes have been coming to light, and some
near prewar style - actually fairly interesting of design and complex.
Barbara Healy just sent me these pictures of a recent aquisition to her collection.
Immediately, there are several solid facts established, here. For one, the paper
front door is original and of our repro type "PWD-3," which I had thought to be
late prewar. This proves it existed on both sides of The War. The roof is "coconut,"
and the house has flocked mullioned windows - proving both these features existed
pre and postwar.
The house is of an interesting complexity that had i not seen the rubber stamp, I
could well have thought it a prewar piece. Perhaps it was. A revival of a prewar
type to get things up and running again immediately following The War until the
newer, simpler designs could be initiated. The more I see, the more I am convinced
that these early complex ones were "New Old Stock" - stamped with the mandated
lable and gone before 1948. The United States occupied Japan from 1945 to 1952, but
dropped the mandate to label exports as "occupied" in 1948, so this is a very brief
period, indeed, because we find more in of these larger ones in early'50s styles
and colors with the "occupied" stamp on them.
I have a lot of postwar Japanese houses. They seem to be quite plentiful and the
easiest to find. It appears that there was a furious resurgence of the Japanese
Christmas house that started during the occupation period and continued for about
ten years. After about 1955 the size and complexity petered out rapidly into ever
less interesting designs until Cristmas decoration manufacturing went almost totally
to Taiwan by the early to mid '60's. In the '60's, Japan is anxious to "upgrade"
Her industrial status before the world, leave Her former image as the "Queen of
Kitch" behind, and go "high-tech" all the way. We are all familiar with the way that
that turned out. They still refuse to talk about it or provide any company names or
other documentation. Believe me, I've tried! But what a shame to leave this period
of astounding creativity behind. It's ironic, I think, that the hi-tech stuff is
hopelessly obsolete and on it's way to landfills in under 5 years, while people
have preserved these "kitchy" little dimestore things for sometimes a century! - a
shame there wasn't room for both, i9n their minds, but deeper and less innocent
things were happening to Christmas.
An oblique view.
Here's another early occupied Japan from Tom Hull. This one has the "PWD-4" paper
door and the fences more like the prewar. Larger than it appears, this one is about
Oh, those 'Fifties!
World war II had struck the American Christmas "Putz" a mortal blow, but it
took a while to really show. For me the Old Christmas was over around 1954-55 when
"Rock n' Roll" took over and almost everybody had TV and an aluminum tree - and
pretty much put nothing underneath that tree but trendy presents. Up till then,
Christmas - as it had been - seemed to be going exceptionally strong, but was really
the last, desperate battle of a lovely old dream to survive.
As The War closed and millions started coming home they wanted it to be what they
had known and dreampt of, but it was not to be. Too much had happened and been seen,
but they really really tried. In the immediate post-War years most all the great
Christmas movies now considered "classics" were produced. Many of the greatest songs
. We met "Rudolph" and "Frosty" and the bubble lights. Lionel and Gilbert American
Flyer were doing land-office business in whole new lines of trains. But the little
cracker-box Levittown style "cracker box" houses they were slapping up were just too
small and didn't lend themselves to setting up large layouts and displays. Despite
their best efforts, Madison Avenue was having only marginal success in getting
liberated "Rosie the Riveter" back into an apron and high heels in a "Donna Reed
Show" / "Father Knows Best"- type kitchen. The Kinsey Reports came out and forever
put the kibosh on our "Juney-moon" illusion of American romance. Then in '49 -
Russia got The Bomb. The Cold War was on. Paranoia and McCarthyism gripped us in a
toxic, witch-hunt spirit. "Duck and cover." "Commies" this - and "Commies" that -
and then we had another war, only this one didn't go so well - and the one to follow
far worse still -
- all of which resulted in the Counter-Culture Revolution of the '60s.
In 1954 The grand old Lionel Corporation had its greatest year ever and came to an
end. Founder and prime-driver Joshua Lionel Cowan sold out and retired. Talk about
timing the market! The next year traditional electric train sales went over a cliff
and never stopped falling. Oh, there were "Lionel" trains, thereafter, but never the
same. Lionel went through a succession of mismanaging corporate hands and by the
60's their products were far fewer and a pathetic shadow of the quality they'd once
been. The old-style 3-railers had been pretty much eclipsed by HO and the new
slot-cars. American Flyer paralleled in decline. By the '60s those massive, heavy
metal engines that had commanded such respect were lightweight plastic junk.
Christmas wish-lists were filled primarily with fad-toys being hyped on TV.
An equally profound transition was taking place in the Christmas decorations we were
finding in the stores. Japan was anxious for that total image make-over into
high-tech all the way. The Christmas junk was coming evermore from Taiwan. The
cardboard houses enjoyed one "Last Hurrah" around 1955 and then went into a rapid
and fatal decline. By the mid '60s you could get little more than simple little
flat-card based houses meant as ornaments for the tree. Bubble light strings were
reduced from 9 sockets to 8 and burned too hot and melted. The sub-miniature "fairy
lights" we all use today were rapidly displacing the old familiar C-6 bulbs. For
about a decade we all welcomed this newness and embraced it.
But then - around about the early '70s - something was in the air. Suddenly, a lot
of people began to miss the old things. Collecting - especially of trains and the
old Christmas things - started up quite suddenly and on a massive scale and has
continued, Putzing has come back though with some new wrinkles. People have always
had a fascination for all things miniature, and by the 90s putzing and trains had
made a huge comeback, even in the general population. The houses were mostly ceramic
, the trains a new breed, but very much in keeping with the old. There are present
ly more tinplate trains being being made - and sold - by more manufacturers than
ever in the old days. More "Big Bands," too, even though they don't play them on
commercial radio. Much of Old America's taste for Christmas has once again arisen "in
the blood." This I'm glad to see. We had nearly thrown out all our dearest babies
with the bathwater.
Immediate Postwar Era
Plastic Town Lightcovers
I remember seeing a lot of these hard-plastic lightcover houses around in Johnstown,
PA just at the end of the war '45/'47. Not sure who made them -Possibly RayLite,
the people who made those plastic lite-up churches and altars that were also big at
the time. Postwar America was nuts about plastic; we thought it was a great thing. I
include them because they're Christmas houses and because I've seen them used not
only on the tree, but as little villages beneath little trees. They are basically
awful. The whole house glows when the light is lit and the back is fully open.
There are 8 different (just as with the NIPPON cardboard house lights of the '30's,) enough to
accomodate the standard 8-lite C-6 string. Each can be found in 4 basic colors. T
here is also a series of 7 larger versions to fit the C-7 110 volt lights, but I
haven't enough of those to show. They tended to melt with the heat of the larger 7
1/2 watt bulb.
The covers were held to the neck of the bulb by this sliding stamped-metal piece,
which is often missing.
From Sears Christmas Wishbook 1949
In 1949, Sears is offering only this small "9" piece Colmor or
Dolly Toy set. 8 nondescript houses and a 2-dimensional standup cardboard
Santa and sleigh. The hard-plastic fence was extra.
Next we come to typical larger grade houses of the 1950-'55 period. It was suddenly
possible to find large and elborate Japanese things again - close to the prewar richness -
a brief period I think of as -
The "LAST HURRAH"
A bloom of larger, more interesting things appears ...
This series of 2-tiered bases with excessive landscaping, for example, somewhat
recall the "Pagoda" house seen in the 1920's section.
Sears Christmas "Wishbook" - 1955:
This is typical of what was available in the mid-'50s, Better,
larger things in the same style could be had in the 5&10s and department stores. Not
since the early '30s had mailorder houses offered even the moderately large and fancy
sets. I think they limited themselves to what was safe and easy to ship. Christmas
"wishbooks" are disappointing for this reason, though they do explain why we find so many
of these uninteresting little things why they are so common. It's the same with many
toys and trains sets. If you could buy it from the Sears or Ward's catalogs, you are
liable to find it anywhere! But note the bases on these: no matter how
fancy and desirable or complex the house, if it has a two-toned wash around edge of the
base it is mosty likely POSTWAR. It's most often the white of the base top with a band
of color around the bottom, or a solid but contrasting color from the top. A similar
treatment appears on some of the PreWar Hacindas, but in harsher colors.
The fifties houses are usually more pastel. But not always. After a while, you just get
a feel for it. Experience is the only way.
Spiegel Christmas "Wishbook" - 1955: p. 181
Here are some better ones from the period. Not quite PreWar, but very
nice. 1955 seems to have been the pinnacle of the "Last Hurrah" ,
because it's a downward spiral from there into the 60s where they become pathetic
shadows of all that had gone before.
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.
Ward's Christmas "Wishbook" - 1956:
It's apparent that it made a big difference where you shopped for houses. Ward's
was always the low-end of the mailorder lot. Compare the prices on these village
sets. In the '50s, you pretty much got what you paid for. But here in 1956, already,
the quality seems to have just tipped over the rim of a cliff.
The M & K PRODUCTS COMPANY
I don't know how to classify these. I kind of have a hunch they
predate the Japanese "Last Hurrah" discussed above. I've got a '40s
feeling. This is a remarkable set in many ways - including UGLY!
pieces are quite large, extraordinarily sturdy and somewhat nicely designed, but
somebody's aesthetic taste switch was definitely in the "off" position when they
chose to cover most of them in black glitter! If you wanted to capture the sooty
filth and grime of a typical coal-burning American mill town, these were the houses
for you! Tom Hull has suggested the glitter was originally silver that has blackened
over time, and I'm inclined to think that could be the case. They would have
looked SO much better! These are definitely rare. A market
failure for sure, and it's sad, really. Whoever designed them was selling
extra-durable quality, making the mistake we made back then that the Japanese
houses were just flimsy junk that could never last ....
Unprepossessing as they are, they're nonethless quite rare - but who cares?
Each house has a metal clip, screw-mounted on a wooden block to hold the socket of
a C-7 sized candelabra bulb in firm position. This is the only example of such a
thing I've ever seen in the world of cardboard Christmas houses. This clip had
come loose from one of the houses but was fortunately still in the set box, so I
took the opportunity to photograph it before gluing it back.
The set was also provided with it's own string of 5 C-7 lights (7 is the standard
string.)The fact that the wire is plastic insulated also sways my assessment of the time
period to the postwar. Three of the houses had numbers stamped on the bottom :
#2,#3, and #6. Whether this means there were more types of these houses, or that
there were 6 elements to the set (the light-string being one of them) - I do not
know. I have seen individual houses like this on eBay, but they were one or
another of the 5 types shown here.
A second boxed M & K Products set has recently (March, 2005)come to light. This one with
This smaller set had it's own string of 3 C-7 lights. In both cases,the boxes are
extraodinarily rugged; double-weight cardboard. Compartmentalized. Total overkill.
One wonders what they were anticpating. They seem designed to be airdropped from
a C-130 "Flying Boxcar" into a battle zone.
A very odd and curious chapter in the Christmas house history. I doubt the company
was in business for very long. It's one those cases seen throughout the Christmas house
history where someone sought and failed to beat the Japanese on quality becaue they
fought the wrong battle on quality. The literal Western Mind went after the
technical and mechanical, whereas the real quality was the fanciful and capricious
Japanese aesthetic - which was often technically absurd, but absolute "eye-candy"
on the dimestore counters. The American practical mind could offer no real
competition there. These battle-worthy M & K houses seem to turn up mainly around
eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, and not have acheived a very widespread
distribution. They were probably too expensive to interest the mail order people and
the novelty retailers. If anyone has further knowledge of this company and it's
history, I'd certainly like to hear from you! These were absolutely new to me
when I stumbled across them.
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.
Typical of the last of the Japanese ca. 1960. Very light construction, light
coating. Oddly, Japan exports a number of these very large churches with a built-in
C-7 110 volt bulb and line cord around this time, as well as those odd mirror and
glass shrine-like creche-like things with a single bulb inside. I have none to show
you; they don't interest me. (Outside of my "Magic Window") There are a lot of
these tiny flat-card types, at the end, that usually came in cellophane baggies of
two or three - sometimes small boxes of a dozen. ... almost devoid of charm and
detail. The dark-red glitter edging seen on the second church and the gold on the
apartment style house are also charactistic of the dying days. Oddly, a distant
vestige of the Printies is seen again in the brick work of it's foundation.
Novelty Light Sets:
Probably the hottest new thing to hit Christmas in the '60's were
the tiny "fairy" lights. Some of the old C-6 series strings were still being sold
up into the early part of that decade, but were rapidly displaced by these tinies,
with so many on a string and burning so much cooler. I like them myself! The
takeover by the "fairy" lights was to influence just about everything in Christmas
decorating to come, lending themselves to a host of novelty-string applications,
many of which were in the form of little houses.
The "ALPINE VILLAGES"
But it was nothing new. Let's back up a couple of decades, first -
The original "ancestor."
The complete boxed set of what I believe to be the first of a continuing series of
village light strings to become later known as "The Alpine Village," including
those tacky open-backed white plastic things with decal fronts you find today. I
doubt they'll ever totally quit making them in some form or other.
. These first date to around 1935. They're Japanese.
Here's a real oddball cardboard village light string of a kind I've
never seen. Rita Dubas of Brooklyn sent me this. It's from the "ELECTRICAL RADIO
CATALOG: 1937-38" from the HARRISON WHOLESALE COMPANY of Chicago. This appears to
have been American made, with GE "Mazda" lamps, and seems too large and heavy to
have been intended for hanging on the tree, despite what they say. Obviously
lithography and reminiscent of the McLaughlin Bros. "Pretty Village" of the WW I
era. Has anyone out there got one of these? I'd love to see an actual photograph.
Now to the actual named "Alpine Villages."
The mid to late '50s into the early '60s? I'm not sure, but these actually have
considerable detail and charm, considering their postwar position in the saga.
Probably fond childhood memories for late "Boomers" now approaching their 60s, I
still see individual pieces in the flea markets quite often. Now I know where they
We have Jana Pumbtree to thank for sending in these photos.
From the mid 60's into the '70's, the Italians - in particular
- came out with a great number of novelty light strings in every imaginable shape -
basically as plastic light covers with the 10 or 12 light strings illuminating them.
Lights and houses have been inextricable bound up from the beginning - back to the
latter 19th Century with European train buildings and doll houses that had little
oil lamps and even candles inside. The Italian village set shown below is remarkable
in that the covers are all light cardboard- not plastic, the tiny buildings
quite interesting and well detailed in and of themselves. But the box says
"Genuine Italian Novelty "Lights", not "Village", 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.
I show the plug marked "MADE IN ITALY" because there is a virtually identical set
of Japanese manufacture called The Sleepy Village. I think the same people
made both and put them in different boxes, haven't had the chance to examine the
Japanese set to see if it has a "made in Japan" plug.
West Germany? Japan? US?
These tiny,curious and very delicate little exquisitely detailed houses came as a
set of 12. You could get them either as ornamental covers for the modern "fairy
lights" to put on the tree, or with a molded plastic scenic base, complete with
pond, trees and figures that held 12 "fairy" lights of a 20-light string under the
houses. A complete little "putz" for a mantel or sideboard display. (See the scan
of the magazine or cataolg ad below.) These have to be from the '60s, though I am
not sure who made or marketed these kits or exactly when. The largest among the
little houses is barely 2" high. They are SO lightweight that they could hold no
wiring down. SO delicate one is afraid to handle them! You don't see them very
often. They're quite hard to find, especially the complete set. What's exceptional
is the detail - running counter to the declining direction of Asian varieties of
This entire little world is just 17" wide by 13" deep.
I have included these partly as a continuance of a thread of house-type lights that
runs throughout the history, and because they're probably the only two items of any
quality and interest that come out of the '60's. I'd like to see a complete boxed
set of these little "German" covers sometime - just to satisfy my curiousity as to
who made them. Were they also ready made or only a kit? I've heard both versions.
The Magic Window
My daughter read what I said about the "death of the American
Christmas" and disagreed. She said "I dunno, Dad - I was born in '62 (I knew that)
and Christmas was just magical and wonderous for me." And, of course, it was. There
is but a very brief window in early childhood for us all - a period of time
that lasts from birth until we are cast from the nest and into public school - a
time while we still have one foot in Heaven and all about the world is new and good.
A time when we are so open. A time when we take things so deeply in that
they will form us ever after. So we imprint upon the Christmas of our time, and
what that was is what it will be for us always.
The Christmases we've always had were always shaped by Christmases that came before
- from the Christmases of parents and near family, always trying to remake the
magic for us that they had known... hoping to see again through our new eyes
and re-enter - if just in little flashes - the now closed Window. Of course,
people don't throw out all the decorations after Christmas every year and buy
everything new the following. Who's trunks of trimming treasure was not filled with
items that were lost friends found anew each Season? - which elicited the same
annual remarks such as "My FAVORITE!!" - and -"This was my grandmother's and her
mother gave it to her.... So - much is carried forward year by year and
generation to generation.
Had I one magic ticket to traverse Time and relive one decade of the 20th Century,
I'd choose the Thirties. I was born in '41 - 6 months before Pearl Harbor. Christmas
practices had not yet changed. The Christmases of my Magic Time were very
much the Christmases as they were from then, from my mother's time: the '20s and the 30's. The
Thirties fascinate me. They call to me to know them...the most complex and
paradoxical of times .. the Great Depression and the Duesenbergs - bread lines,
Labor Wars and the most fabulous Christmas things that were ever made. The largest
and most luxurious electric trains and toys... locomotives so large a small child
could not lift one from the track! Hobos!The rise of radio. Art Decco. The Empire
State Building and the great zeppelins. The talking movies. Aviation. Whole regions
of the country getting electricity and indoor plumbing for the first time. An
unquestioned faith in the future of technology at a time when many had an outhouse
in the back and the most menial of jobs if a job at all. My Mom and Dad lived those
times. I had the Christmases they made. I heard their talk.
There were qualities about them that made me want to be where they had been see what
they had seen. Qualities you rarely see in postwar people ....
I think that that is what collecting is about, especially for those who collect for
love and not for sterile speculation. This is most true of the toys and trappings of
Christmas. Artifacts. Actual, tangiblecontacts with our Special Time.
It is true that we forget nothing. The power that an object unseen in decades can
have to transport us in mind and spirit back to a specific period or moment of our
lives - to unlock long-closed doors in the mansion of our memory - is the
true value that it has. We can hold such an object in our hands and know
those times were real, and welcome back whole parts of who we were into who we
are ...and let the inner child in each of us out to play again - to live
as part of us and help us see again through our own Magic Window .
So, God bless us every one, and AMEN! Reality be damned! This is CHRISTMAS! You
will find that those old objects will take you back in time, but never listen to
those sad fools who say that you are "living in the past." We are what we are
because of our pasts. Would that we could! But we can bring them forward, to live
within us as we face the present and the future. Those pasts taught us everything
Never be ashamed of your nostalgia ...it was, and is, your reverence for the life
you had, - the path that you have traveled