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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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    • Sue Montgomery says

      We have the Santa sled, too! Plus, a whole village of little houses, trees, etc., not to mention the old glass ornaments that also came from my mother’s family. I never realized how the traditions passed down to us were so very German!

  3. paul lunemann says

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

  4. Sue Montgomery says

    What a lovely post! We grew up with our German “village under the tree” scene that was in my mother’s family growing up. It dates from the late ’20s to early ’30s. My brother now has it. A treasure trove of memories!

  5. Lk says

    I am very lucky that my mom abd dad grew up in the mud century. They married in 1961 so Ive inherited lots of Putz houses and mid century items. Im so glad she kept these things.

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