Around 400 years ago the Erzgebirge area of Germany - the Thurgian Mountains (Ore Mountains) - ran out of ore. The area is 60% forest, so the miners turned to cottage industries that included making toys, holiday decorations, and candy containers from wood and wood products such as composition, to make their living. Each family, over the many years that followed, honed their skills and developed patterns, molds and tools that they passed down to their children. This legacy developed the region into some of the premier cottage industry toy makers in the world. Their toys and decorations are prized by collectors as they are hand-made works of art. This is not the only area in Germany that made toys and decorations, but it is one of the most famous ones.
The early Erzgebirge pieces are oftentimes primitive, such as the tiny hand carved and hand painted little farm sets and villages. Many of the early buildings were simple pieces of hand cut wood, painted with simple designs. Their charm is in their primitive characterization. There were tiny wagons, being drawn by horses and oxen, tiny people, sometimes sitting on benches, drawing water from a well, and all manner of village life. They were often no more than 1" tall, and sometimes as high as 2". These village sets and individual pieces were sold for Christmas Putz scenes, train scenes, and play sets.
Christmas Putz scenes are the wonderful village scenes that people have been displaying under their trees for generations. They became really popular in Germany in the mid-1800's, and quickly spread to the rest of Europe and the US. Putz is the German word for plaster. Since many of the pieces are made from composition which uses plaster, this word has come to be the word used to describe these scenes. They can be town scenes, farm scenes, Santa scenes, or anything that appeals.
The Erzgebirge artisans also used composition, which is a combination of sawdust, glue, plaster and anything else that was handy, including the red clay soil in the region, to make small toys and figures. Dwarves and gnomes were a popular choice for Christmas and train sets, and were shown in all sorts of configurations. .Each piece was individually crafted, and then hand painted. The composition farm figures were often sold with match stick legged farm animals, such as the wooly sheep. These sheep have real wool covering their composition bodies and heads, and match stick legs. The rams have little metal horns. The farm sets were sold in flat cardboard boxes, with a tipped in (pasted on) lithograph picture on the front showing the farm scene. These stick legged sheep were later copied by Japan, after World War II, and sold in the US. The Japan sheep have a different type of covering, usually a more flannel type of material than wool, and their legs were usually a bit bigger.
Candy containers have always been a big part of the offerings from this area. The early candy containers were often made from paper mache, or were little wooden or cardboard boxes with composition figures on them. The candy containers became more elaborate and fancy as the years went on. Some of the ones being made today are incredible works of complex art. The candy containers were made for every holiday, and any characters that could be imagined.
Holiday decorations and novelties were made for Christmas, Easter, and Halloween, and sometimes St. Patricks Day. Incense smokers (incense burners) and nut crackers were also big items made in the Erzgebirge region. The nutcracker first appeared around 1870, and the early ones weren't dressed, like the elaborate ones of today. Many of the angels in hand carved decorations and nut crackers used the carver's wives and daughters as models.
The majority of vintage and antique pieces available today vary in age from the late 1800's to the 1950's.
Items made before 1945 were marked "Germany", when marked. There weren't a lot of toys and holiday decorations made during the height of the war years - 1940 to 1945.
After 1945, which was the end of World War II, Germany was divided into East and West Germany by the Allies, and all items were marked "East" or "West". In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and Germany re-unified. Since January, 1990, items coming from Germany again are marked simply "Germany".
The Erzgebirge region still makes lots of toys and holiday decorations. The same families are still in business today, with many of the old molds, tools and patterns. Many of the toys being made today are reproductions of the early toys, and when they are sold by the families, are marked as such. As the toys make their way through different hands, however, the distinction of new vs old sometimes gets blurred, or lost altogether. Many of the toys are new designs made in the old style. Since the toys, decorations and candy containers of today look so similar to the old ones, and are now marked "Germany", it is easy to be fooled into thinking a new piece is an antique one.
If it is marked "East" or West", it was made only from 1945 to 1989. If it is marked "Germany" and is made from pressed cardboard with a light covering of plaster or mache, it is probably new.
There are no hard and fast rules to tell which pieces are old and which are new. A rule of thumb is, "If it looks too good to be true, it probably is". Even top rated dealers are sometimes fooled. Make sure, if you purchase an expensive candy container or toy, that you buy from someone who takes returns. It is usually easy to tell, once you have the item in your hands, whether it is new or old.
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