Good Life

Art & Antiques | Miniature holiday villages have long, rich history

This holiday season, many people have renewed the age-old custom of building and displaying miniature Victorian-style holiday villages in their homes. Young and old alike participate in the design of these traditional holiday decorations based on the old German markets of Thuringia.

Museum in miniature

Today’s miniature village-scapes derive from the miniature villages designed to adorn the table atop which the first holiday trees sat in the late 19th century. Contemporary versions, though, feature varied tiers, miniature buildings, ersatz snow and figurines galore.

Many miniature holiday village installations rival the work of any professional museum exhibition designer. Enthusiastic holiday decorators may employ anything from mini factory buildings of cardboard or lithographed tin to gumdrop pathways and chocolate bar rooftops. Many of the items in these displays were acquired from friends, family members and during flea market or yard sale shopping sprees over the months, all in anticipation of the holiday season.

Village people

Made of cardboard and filled with candy, miniature holiday houses were initially used to decorate a table top beneath early Christmas trees. In the 19th century, small block villages were manufactured in Germany for the world market. Along with the Christmas tree, Great Britain’s Prince Albert introduced the Christmas village to the world based on Germany’s famed Christmas markets or villages, a tradition that dates back to the mid-1500s.

The Thuringian Christmas, or holiday markets, grew into holiday fairs. Back then, the merchants offered necessities of the season, including hand-blown Lauschen ornaments, silver tinsel, and miniature architectural structures and innovative toys. Christmas markets and holiday villages were set up in German towns to provide citizens with the special needs of the season, like regional crafts, gifts and specialty foods.

Cardboard Christmas

Originally intended as sets for display under the Christmas tree, miniature villages simulated winter wonderlands. In the early 20th century, Christmas villages evolved with the popularity of toy towns and Lionel train sets. In America, cardboard candy containers and miniature tin houses were displayed beneath Christmas trees as early as the 1920s.

By the 1930s, many toy and miniature building manufacturers, including toy train maker Lionel, offered Christmas villages in sets of eight structures each.

Why eight? That was the number of holiday lights on a circa-1920 string, which would be hidden within each mini building. The set of eight little village buildings would create a suitably diverse holiday town complete with churches, shops and a few well-appointed homes.

By the post-war years, miniature Christmas villages were produced from flocked cardboard in Germany, Japan and the U.S. These printed villages could then be folded compactly for shipping and assembled upon arrival for display beneath the Christmas tree or on the family piano.

Little houses, big money

Famous miniature “architectural firms” included the McLoughlin Bros., of New York, and the Built-Rite Toys firm, who teamed up with the Warren Paper Products Co. to offer mini holiday town displays in the early decades of the 1900s. A Sears & Roebuck miniature Christmas village would have cost only 69 cents in 1934.

After World War II, Bachmann Bros. introduced the Plasticville line of miniature buildings to accompany model trains. Miniature Christmas villages often command high prices at auction. For instance, a miniature village from the Bliss Co. offered a lithographed cardboard pharmacy, opera house, bank and post office, and sold for $16,500. That’s big money for some little houses.

Happy holidays!