It's a folk form of assemblage art, a composition of found or handmade
objects to create a miniature world of fantasy, and anything goes..so 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,
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!
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 ....
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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?
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.
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 .....
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.
#253 - the Lionel (from the 1975 putz) peeking out of the "High Track Tunnel," Lionel
#258 early steamer coming 'round behind the station.
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.)
Packing three separate train circuits into such a tight space didn't leave much room
for houses, but some ...
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another "place" with a story. What a great collection of Barclay figures!
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
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.
Old and Absent Putz
This photo is sometime in the mid twenties of my
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
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.
Though no putz is showing, I just love old photos like this. If anyone
has any shots like these, I would love to put them on the site.
If you have pictures of Christmas layouts new or
old, please send them via e-mail so we can put them on the site!