Vintage Putz Houses — A history and online guide

Popular from 1928 through the 1950s
Also known as Glitter Houses, Christmas Villages,
Christmas Gardens and Train Gardens

vintage-putz-houseSetting up tiny, glittery houses during the Christmas holidays became widely popular in 1928 and continued for about a decade after World War II ended. But because these kinds of  ornaments hold so much sentimental value, they often get passed down for generations to come. (Even if the kids don’t want mom or grandma’s furniture, we want those beloved Christmas ornaments!) These historic vintage villages are particularly sweet: Whether they were arranged as small neighborhood on your mantel, part of a train set scene under the tree or set up in conjunction with a nativity scene — these diminutive buildings allowed both young and old to play as they decorated. Today: The history of what we have been calling “putz” style houses, but which have been sold under a variety of names for — more than a century!
vintage-putz-house-and-churchAt our house, we always set up the three tiny structures that were given to us by my grandmother (pictured above) as part of a scene on top of the TV cabinet. They went between the nativity scene that I made out of clay and the Snoopy and Charlie Brown holiday figures we had collected over the years. It was perhaps a strange combination — but one that always delighted my brother and me: our own miniature world.

putz-housesThese small houses — such as the ones above from reader RetroChase (notice the “basket weave roofs) — have been called by a variety of names: Christmas Villages, Glitter Houses, Christmas Gardens, Train Gardens and Putz Houses.

Where does the term “Putz House” come from? Wiktionary says that it comes:

  • From Pennsylvania German putz; compare archaic German Putz (“ornament, decoration, finery”), putzen (“to clean; decorate”).

The story seems to be that, in Germany, families would create little holiday scenes — often nativity scenes — in their homes to celebrate Christmas. They would collect the bits and pieces for their tableaus for weeks… hence putzen=”decorate” became putzing=”taking your time to decorate” became putzen=”taking your grand ole time”. [ -- Pam's shorthand, hope I got this right.]

The global expert in Putz house history seems undeniably to be Ted Althof, who began collecting this little houses in the 1970s, and who since then has created an amazing, detailed online history of Putz houses. Seriously: Wow!

We won’t try to replicate his history — it goes on for pages — minutiae about the minute! But in short: These glittery little holiday houses date to 1928 — invented by the Japanese, likely building on the concept of the similarly small “candy box” houses that they had been making for the American market. Their “golden years were from 1928 through 1937, when the looming war discouraged consumption. They saw a dime store revival after World War II — when Japan began making and exporting them. Their popularity waned by 1960, as consumers turned to other holiday decoration fashions.

Again: Check out Ted’s site, it’s amazing. Here’s a good story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

blinkaville-putz-housesAbove: Reader Mary affectionately refers to her village as “Blinkaville.”

There is a wealth of information available online — photographs and information about Putz houses, patterns and instructions to make your own, people who will build them for you, information on how to make repairs to your vintage houses. And, they seem to be pretty abundant — and a relatively *cheap thrill* on etsy and ebay.

Putz house links

If you’re looking for a more mid century twist on the classic putz house, see my three posts with free downloadable patterns to make your own:

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Comments

  1. Jay says

    Kate, great story! Glad to see you linked to Papa Ted. I came across his site acidently a few years ago and return each year around Christmas to look at the pictures. You can spend a lot of time perusing the site.

  2. says

    Thanks for the history, Kate! I’ve enjoyed your little putz houses very much although I was wondering about the name. When I think of the word “putz” I associate it with being slow because my German-descended mother was always accusing me of “putzing around”, ha ha. I wondered how it connected to the houses because it’s not a word you hear a lot and I didn’t think “slow house” made much sense ;-)

  3. Lynne says

    I volunteer at a thrift store, and two of these little houses were donated yesterday. They are stamped Japan on the bottom, so I guess they’re the real thing. Not in the greatest condition, but I bought them anyway.

  4. Bill says

    I wish I have the vintage ones, but have started to collect the modern ones…(blush) even at 47, there is something magical about setting up the village for Christmas. Good article Bill

  5. Robin, NV says

    My grandmother had a village of putz houses that always went up on the mantel. I remember I wasn’t allowed to play with them – probably because they were too delicate for a 6-year-old. I wonder if she still has them. Guess I’ll have to call my grandma tonight!

    As an aside – my mom always accused my stepdad of “futzing” around. I’ll have to let her know it’s really “putzing.”

    • hannah says

      Hi Robin -

      In our house too, it was always referred to as ‘futzing’. I’ll have to check out Papa Ted’s page (open as I type) and read the history!

  6. Leslie says

    Another morning with a cup o’ joe and spending more time than I should going through the pictures and history of the Christmas Villages on Ted’s website. I loved the old department store Christmas window displays, what a delight! Thanks for this story and starting my day off with a smile.

    • Janet in CT says

      Where are the department store window displays? I must have missed them. I ran across them several years ago and found them so fascinating. I don’t even remember them from my childhood but what a great hobby/collection!

  7. Jennie O says

    I recently bought several vintage ones at an estate sale for $3 each! (bargain!!) to add to my collection of other vintage ones I already owned. They are possibly my favorite Christmas decoration.

  8. Nancy Stevenson says

    Hey you guys! We completed our little village of Kate’s Putz houses! We LOVE them! It is the cutest thing ever!!! I am somewhat artsy-craftsy, but my hubby is not. We each made one of each pattern… He tried and tried to keep perfecting his… LOL… being a guy and a geek and all… a bit obsessive about making it work better… I went with whatever the project dished out to me, and really enjoyed it! We had a date night, drank wine, and got er done. Would love to send a photo- and each house takes about 6-7 hours! We love our village and thanks for the ideas! :o)

  9. Laura E. says

    There’s a picture of me I love–my first Christmas, 1965, with my great-grandmother and my cousin, whose first Christmas it also was, in front of the family putz village with my grandfather’s train going around it. I’d upload it if I could! (Yes, we still have the village and figures, though sadly not the train set.)

  10. nina462 says

    i inherited a set of 5 (in original packaging) from my uncle Charlie when he passed. I now put them up on my tv next to my tree every year. it’s 4 houses and a church.
    (I also got all his other Christmas decorations … many from the 50′s – 60′s, lots made in Japan).

  11. hannah says

    Yay! A new uploader topic! Not that I have anything to contribute, but it’s good to see the weekend (early this time) uploader again. Thanks Pam. :)

    I don’t remember these from my youth, I ran across them when doing my first Christmas treasury on Etsy. I thought they were charming – all glittery and miniature. My Dad always had a train set up under the tree (running, mind you). Mom, was not into nick-nacks much.

  12. Diane says

    Thanks for the history on these–I need to go into my parents attic and dig out all of the house I remember from childhood!

  13. tammyCA says

    Neat site on the Putz…will have to go back and read it all later.
    We had Putz houses in the 60s, but sadly they didn’t survive our playing with them. ‘Course we didn’t know what we had, just like many other things that are now collectible. I did find some big ones at Goodwill a few years ago but they were really dirty, damaged so I gave some a makeover & gave them away..kept one, a church in its original dilapidated state ‘tho. I did find a tiny pink house at an estate that I just love…I like tiny better.

  14. Helen D. says

    Thanks for the putz houses article. In case you did not know, Papa Ted passed this autumn but the website is kept as a tribute.

  15. Janice says

    My parents always displayed their putz houses (or as we called them – glittery houses) on top of the console TV with the fluffy cotton batting stuff to be the pretend snow. We even had little figurines that went with it. I have a clear memory of my Dad covering a butter lid with aluminum foil so it looked like an ice rink since we had ice skaters included in the set. I don’t think my parents have the set anymore, but what I would give to have it now. Great story and great memories!

  16. Becky from Iowa says

    I wonder if these somewhat of a regional tradition? I grew up in the south, and have never heard of these. I don’t believe I’ve even seen them… Which is a little odd, considering my grandmothers family is entirely Pennsylvania German.

  17. megan says

    I grew up in Lancaster County, PA and attended the Lititz Moravian Church in Lititz, PA. They have a wonderful tradition at Christmas where you can tour a life-sized Putz scene. I remember going as a child and being in awe of the whole Nativity as it was laid out before me. If you ever find yourself in Lititz, PA around Christmas try and get tickets to the Christmas Love Feast followed by the trombone chorus–you won’t regret it–it’s truly magical. Also the Putz is open to everyone without needing a ticket.

  18. Mike says

    Oh my gosh! I can hardly believe my eyes. I have that Santa, sleigh and reindeer set pictured above. Three years ago my aunt (who is in her 70′s) gave me a dozen boxes full of her retro Christmas ornaments. When I got home and began looking through the boxes. I felt like an eight year old on Christmas morning. I now have glass ornaments that I have never seen before and they are in mint condition. Each year I put up two trees. The modern one for the family and MY retro tree. But, the one decoration I cherish the most is the Putz Santa Sled.

  19. paul lunemann says

    Here’s a website called thortrains.net that shows how to set a village and train set under the tree and how to use forced perspective to give good effect.

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