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Christmas Toys - An 1850 German made putz located in the Old Salem Toy Museum Collection given in memory of Pauline Bahnson Gray by Thomas A. Gray. Photo courtesy of Old Salem Museum and Gardens.
An 1850 German made putz located in the Old Salem Toy Museum Collection given in memory of Pauline Bahnson Gray by Thomas A. Gray. Photo courtesy of Old Salem Museum and Gardens.
The Moravians have
been a culture of people that have made more of the celebration of Christmas like no other culture from colonial times forward. As a culture, they considered themselves separate from the Pennsylvania Germans even though they were a German speaking sect.

Because of their affinity with Christmas, they introduced the putzes into churches and homes of the closed communities of Lititz and Bethlehem as early as 1782; and in doing so, made the German woodcarvings of the nineteenth century an important part of folk art history. Three types of woodcarvings that were used either in putz settings or simply to play with by little children were pyramids, wooden miniature houses, and Noah's Ark. Since many of these examples of toys did not survive, each is highly collectible especially during Christmas.

Christmas Toys - Christmas pyramid circa 1900 possibly made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Christmas pyramid circa 1900 possibly made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
There is documentary proof that the Moravians brought Christmas pyramids into this country as early as 1748. Published in the Bethlehem Diary on December 25, 1748, the author wrote, "Quite early, the little children enjoyed a delightful festal occasion. Their brethren had decorated various pyramids with candles, apples, and hymn stanzas and, also, drawn a picture in which the children were represented as presenting their Ave to the Christ-Child, all of which Brother Johannes (de Watteville) explained to them in a child-like manner, so that the love-feast conducted for them as well as upon all the brethren and sisters present." A lovefeast was on Christmas day when buns or streisslers and mugs and coffee were consumed as part of the religious service.

Christmas Toys - A large German five tiered Elastolin on wood Christmas pyramid with a colorful rock garden depiction with added trees, green fencing on all five levels. This pyramid sold at Bertoia Auctions, Vineland New Jersey in September 2012 for $375.
A large German five tiered Elastolin on wood Christmas pyramid with a colorful rock garden depiction with added trees, green fencing on all five levels. This pyramid sold at Bertoia Auctions, Vineland New Jersey in September 2012 for $375.
Christmas pyramids were four sided framed structures that were predecessors to the Christmas tree. Some were two to three feet in height and placed on tables as Christmas decorations which received a load full of cookies, fruit, and candles. The Christmas pyramids date back to the Middle Ages when households in southern and western Europe brought into the home evergreen branches of boxwood and hung them to ward off moroseness in the dark and cold winter months. Candles were used for this purpose in eastern and northern Europe. The two traditions were combined and a Lichtergestelle which was the forefather to the pyramid popular in the eighteenth century.

Christmas Toys - 20th Century Erzebirge houses.
20th Century Erzebirge houses.
Eventually capstans which were used in the Ore Mountains or Erzebirge region which extends from Dresden and Saxony, Germany, to Tschechien, or Czech Republic. The custom of dancing around a St. John's tree covered with garlands and flowers was popular. This is the area where the wooden toy carvings began which gave rise to a successful toy industry for the German people. The Erzebirge people were tin miners, an industry which began in late 1500.

Eventually silver ore began to run out and numerous pits were closed. By 1849, the Erzebirge Regional Mountain Mining Office was closed. The German people had to find another source of income for economic survival. Farming was not practical because of the terrain. However, there was an abundance of wood. This was the birth of a cottage industry, wooden toy makers.

Christmas Toys - 19th Century Erzebirge houses more valuable than the previous set.
19th Century Erzebirge houses more valuable than the previous set.
Johannes Friedrich Heimann was a woodworker who took wooden products known as Drechsleware to the Leipzig Fair for the first time in 1699. He was overwhelmed with so many orders that many of his neighbors offered to help him. The beginning of the toy industry began around 1750 with the use of water powered mills. By 1765, there were 28 spin workshops and 8 spinning works. By 1853 the Toy Production School was founded.

After the mining ceased, the idle metal stamping machines were used as woodworking shops with water power which turned the lathes. Villages such as Marienberg, Schneebertg, Oberammergau, Waldkirchen, and Seiffen began to construct their own particular objects.

It was the family that worked together to produce the wooden toys. The father of the family would went to the lathe and turned his wood into a rough, round shape which resembled an oversized wooden nickel. The wife would chisel and sand the crude piece into either a small wooden horse or animal destined for a Noah's Ark. Once she was satisfied, she would hand the object to the children who would paint the wooden pieces with bright, warm colors.

Christmas Toys - An Erzebirge toy village that sold for $650 in Spring City, Pennsylvania.
An Erzebirge toy village that sold for $650 in Spring City, Pennsylvania.
The miniature Erzebirge houses were produced in the same manner. The village of Seiffen was famous for producing miniature toys such as the tiny houses to save on costs on duty imports to America. A book titled Toy Sample Book of Waldkirchen is the best source for identifying the miniature houses; however, the book is rare since there was a limited edition of 350 copies. It is a reproduction of an 1850 sample book.

The Erzebirge region was also famous for producing most highly collected and sought after German Toy, Noah's Ark. This was a popular "Sunday toy" which the children were allowed to play with on the Sabbath due to its religious connotations. The toy maker used the typical farmhouse with its high pitched roof and ornamental painting of central Germany as his example. One family might make the monkeys on an ark, another family might produce tigers or lions. Green and blue animals were common. The rarest of animals were insects and snakes. The colorists would paint the ark and the animals with fanciful colors, borders of leaves and flowers, and a traditional dove on the roof.

Christmas Toys - 19th Century Noah's Ark.
19th Century Noah's Ark.
Women carried their finished arks in baskets to the toy agents in the towns. The animals were made so cheaply that they were known as "penny beasts."

Walter Brooks wrote about his childhood and playing with Noah's Ark in the 1860's:

What child a half a century ago was not the proud possessor of a Noah's Ark, that requisite of every well-organized nursery. I have of late years failed to find one in any shop window and fear like most old-fashioned toys it has had to stand out of the way of progress. In my own case the Noah's Ark helped me pass many a tedious day when minor floods were abroad and its hoards of paired inhabitants were an endless source of diversion and speculation.

The ark itself was a flat-bottom boat on which was constructed a house with peaked roof. I can not now recall the color of either the boat or the house, but the roof, I know was painted red, for the paint would sometimes come off on my fingers, moistened as they would be by the nervous tension of play. I also know the taste of the paint for childlike I used my tongue for cleaning purposes, since life was entirely too short to provide any interim for the ordinary process of washing in a basin. I generally had to undergo that trial, however, sooner or later accompanies by reproof as the red in the corners of my mouth was sure to betray me...


Christmas Toys - Animals from a 19th Century Noah's Ark.
Animals from a 19th Century Noah's Ark.
In the Erzebirge region, there were 607 families of cottage industrialists, fifty-nine enterprises employing an average of thirteen persons and four larger companies that employed an average of seventy-eight people which produced croquet sets and building blocks. With all of this manpower, it still took the flexibility of the individual to shape and form the birds and animals necessary to complete the Noah's Ark.

The Erzebirge houses, pyramids and Noah's Ark pieces are all highly collectible antiques, especially during the Christmas period. Noah's Ark can especially bring commanding prices at auction. A set of Erzebirge houses can sell between $35-65 if they are mid-twentieth century. The older houses nineteenth century houses can bring $150 to $300 depending on the number of houses and condition in the lot. If the original box is included, the price jumps up accordingly. A set of 90 pieces including Erzebirge figures and houses, soldiers, people, animals, windmill, swing, train and crossings, doghouses, marked German from one inch to five inches sold at Ron Rhoads Auctioneers October 2013 in Spring City, Pennsylvania for $650.

Christmas Toys - A 19th Century Noah's Ark which sold at Pook and Pook January 2012 for $21,330.
A 19th Century Noah's Ark which sold at Pook and Pook January 2012 for $21,330.
Pyramids are as valuable. A 1900 carved and painted Christmas pyramid, 41.5" high sold at Pook and Pook September 13-14, 2012 for $326. It is being offered on Ruby Lane for $1,750. Pyramids continue to be made in the Erzebirge regions of Germany.

Noah's Ark can be the most valuable folk art pieces of the three items mentioned. In 2007, a Noah's Arks circa 1900 with 11 animals sold for $1,638 and another Noah's Ark circa with 42 animals sold for $4,636. Last year in November a Noah's Ark circa 1900 with 41 animals sold for $2,370. Two months later produced some of the highest prices paid for the ark and its contents. A German painted Noah's Ark circa 1900 with 94 animals sold for $1,304. In the same sale at Pook and Pook, a massive German painted Noah's Ark with 250 animals sold for $8,888. The same January sale produced a nineteenth century Noah's Ark with 129 animals which had an estimate of $5,000-10,000. but sold much higher for $21,330.

Maybe for this Christmas you will be able to find hidden is some back closet or an old trunk in the basement or attic one of these folk art pieces that revolutionized the toy industry.

Source: Photos & text by Bryan Wright

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