FOLK ARTISTS MAKE TOYS TO CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS

postcard

Christmas postcard printed in Germany circa 1900-1910. A picket fence surrounds a tabletop tree trimmed with candles and beads.

 

 

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Christmas tree in tramp art fenced tree holder on a twig plant stand, circa 1875-1900.

 

 

TRAMP ART CHRISTMAS TREE HOLDER WITH A FENCED GARDEN

Maker: Unknown.
Origin: Found in Pennsylvania
Circa: 1875-1900.
Materials: Chip carved and stained wood.
Size: 14” w x 14 “d x 6 ¼” h.

What a find! It is a tramp art Christmas tree holder enclosed in a fenced garden.

The maker constructed a basic wooden frame, and secured a circular wooden tree holder in the center of the platform. An ‘X’ patterned fence was applied to the frame between the end posts. Pieces of wooden cigar boxes were chip carved and applied in three layers to decorate the end posts and the frame of the holder. The overall effect is quite successful. The completed piece was stained with a dark walnut finish.

The Beidermeir era introduced the glorious candle lighted tree trimmed with colorful baubles, candies, gilded fruits and nuts, cookies, garlands of red cranberries, and sometimes toys. Flickering candles added to the wonder and magic of the Christmas tree.

The folk custom of placing an evergreen tree in a fenced Christmas garden, also known as a ‘Garden of Eden’, and was brought to the new world by German immigrants from Bavaria. This seasonal tradition found its way into homes in Pennsylvania, regions of Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, wherever German immigrants settled.

Christmas trees with gardens are documented in 18th century German wood block prints. In Pennsylvania, about 1819, John Lewis Krimmel sketched a table top tree with a fenced garden. The fence surrounding the garden symbolized the ‘Garden of Eden’, from the Biblical story of Adam and Eve.

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John Lewis Krimmel sketch of a family gathered around a table top Christmas tree with a fenced (‘Garden of Eden’), circa 1819. Collection of the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library.

Constructing the Christmas garden or underground was often a family project, assembled the week before or on Christmas Eve. Children eagerly awaited the trip to the mountains to cut the tree, gather soft green moss, knurled twigs, and stones to be used as landscaping materials.

In the garden under the tree, a scene was created with toy animals, buildings, figures, wagons or carts. Often a ‘crib’ or ‘creche’ depicting the Holy family was included in the scene. Fathers, grandfathers, uncles, mothers, and sometimes the children, participated in the creation of miniature villages and farm scenes. In the construction of elaborate undergrounds, forms were built up in the shape of mountains and covered with live moss. Small mirrors became ponds for tiny ducks and swans. The landscape was made as realistic as possible using natural materials to simulate a realistic landscape.

As young children, my sister and I were intrigued with the elaborate fenced Christmas garden that our great aunts placed under their table top tree. The animals, chickens, ducks, figures, houses, bridge and fence, were given to them by a next door neighbor, Miss Katy Sargess. Prior to the Civil War, Katy’s father, a glove maker, emigrated from Germany, and settled in Boonsboro, Maryland. The Sargess family brought the Garden of Eden tradition with them when they came to Maryland.

That tradition was shared with and adopted by our family (English and Scotch). We always had an underground under the Christmas tree, complete with an electric train. To this day, I put together an underground, complete with a working antique Ives electric train, lighted houses, train station, street lights, a park, a military parade, farm animals, and people.

By whatever name, a ‘Garden of Eden’, Christmas garden, or underground, this custom remains a traditional part of Christmas in my household.

TabletopTabletop Christmas tree illustrated in a German ABC book. Bilderbruck, circa 1850-1855.

 

 

 

 

IllustratedToysIllustration from An Illustrated History of Toys by Fritzsch.Bachmann. King Nutcracker under the Christmas tree, about 1850. Drawing from Konig Nussknacker und der arme Reinhold by Heinrich Hoffman.

HANDMADE CHRISTMAS ORNAMENTS

Maker: Unknown.
Origin: Purchased at a farm sale in Frederick County, Maryland.
Circa: 1875-1900.
Materials: Cardboard and glazed colored papers.
Size: Vary in size from 5 ½” to 3 ½”.

The person who snipped these colorful paper ornaments was familiar with the technique of paper cutting known as scherenschnitte. A skilled hand cut these attractive designs from glazed colored papers; then glued them to cardboard forms covered with contrasting glazed paper.

Paper ornaments were fashionable tree trimmings during the last quarter of the 19th century. Folk artists designed and cut original designs. For those who were not artistic, ladies’ magazines, Godey’s and Petersons, offered patterns and descriptions for construction of paper creations to be made for the Christmas tree.

starornament heartOrnamentHandmade Christmas ornaments circa 1875-1900.

 

 

 

 

 

HANDMADE CHRISTMAS CRECHE/ NATIVITY

Maker: Elizabeth LeVan and her husband.
Origin: Waynesboro, Pennsylvania.
Circa: 1940-1950.
Materials: The figures have carved wooden painted heads, hands& feet, attached to wire bodies, with silk and cotton clothing. The animals are painted carved wood. Stable is stained wood with corrugated cardboard roof. and the palm trees are wood and construction paper.
Size: People figures vary in size from 4 ¼”H to 6 ¼”H. The large camel 7 ½”H.x 8” L and smaller camel 5 ½” H x 6 ½”L, donkey is 5” H x 6 “L. Stable is 7 ½”D x 12” L.
Provenance: The crèche was purchased from an antiques dealer who bought the crèche at the LeVan household auction. The pieces were packed in the original corrugated storage box. The label was addressed to Mrs. Elizabeth LeVan, 138 Cleveland Avenue, Waynesboro, PA, 17268. Mrs. LeVan had repurposed a box in which she had received items from a store at 926 Court Street, Reading, PA 19601.

nativityChristmas crèche made by Elizabeth LeVan and her husband, 1940-1950.

Handmade American crèche figures clothed in fabrics are unusual. These figures have bendable wire bodies and limbs. The heads, arms and hands, and the feet or boots are carved and painted wood. The clothing is machine stitched from delicate silks and cotton fabrics.

These handmade folk art pieces express the beauty and significance of the first Christmas.

It is fair to assume that the LeVans had seen early Neopolitan or Bavarian crèche figures, like those illustrated in this article.

The words crèche, crib, nativity, manger, precepio, are one, and the same. The tradition of the Christmas crib is as old as the tradition of celebrating Christmas, established by Pope Leberius in 354. At Greccio, Italy, in 1223, St. Francis of Assisi recreated the birth of Christ using live actors and animals. This firmly established the crèche as a symbol of Christmas.

Through the ages, the drama of the nativity scene has captured man’s imagination. Artists have portrayed it in various mediums. Each succeeding age has retold the birth of Christ in terms of the time in which they lived, depicting the characters in contemporary dress and local surroundings. Each nativity is a personal interpretation of this important event.

In Italy and Bavaria, the crib reached its’ greatest popularity and widespread use. Artists created opulent Baroque cribs. They elaborated on the simplicity of the scene with multitudes of village street vendors, peasants, hosts of angels, cherubs, and entourages of nobility, shepherds, animals, and the three Kings. The Holy family almost became lost among the vast numbers of figures included in the settings.

nativity2These exquisitely detailed Italian precepio (crèche) figures were made by artists on the street of the figure makers, in Naples, Italy. Some of the figures in the scene date from the 18th century, others from the 19th century. Elaborate settings for the Holy family and other figures, included in the scene were traditionally handled in a manner similar to paintings by the old masters. The wooden animals are 21st century German and Italian carvings.

In America, early Moravians settlers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania celebrated Christmas by building a ‘Putz’ or Nativity scene in their homes. The Moravian ‘Putz’ is comprised of an elaborate backdrop for the Holy family that includes green moss, wood branches and evergreens. The three kings, shepherds, angels and animals are also included in the elaborate scenes.

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CHILD’S OWL TRICK OR TREAT CANDY CONTAINER

Painted wood owl Halloween candy container.

CHILD’S OWL TRICK OR TREAT CANDY CONTAINER
CHILD’S OWL TRICK OR TREAT CANDY CONTAINER

Maker: Unknown
Origin: Maryland/Pennsylvania.
Circa: 1920-1930.
Materials: Painted re-purposed wood   tongue and grooved box and plywood.
Size: 4 1/8” w x 8 1/4” d x 4 ¾” h. x 3 ¾” d.

“Tonight is the night when dead leaves fly like witches on switches across the sky. Tonight is the night when pumpkins stare through sheaves and leaves everywhere,” Halloween by Henry Behn (1898-1973).

It is almost Halloween. For one magical night, children don costumes and become Superman, Batman, or a perhaps a Disney princess. Trick or treaters’ all carry goodie bags or containers to collect treats.

When this owl candy container was made, Halloween was not the commercially important holiday that it has become. Today, Halloween is huge. The stores are full of decorations, candies, costumes and treat containers.

This little grey owl with big yellow eyes and feet is carried by string handles. I suspect the original handles were made of wire. It maintains the original paint and has nice patina. The maker used a light grey undercoat and delineated feathers and facial features with a darker grey. Black outlines the big yellow eyes, beak and feet on a branch. The artist’s selection of black to outline the owl’s features has a dramatic effect.

How much cooler is this wooden grey owl than a plastic pumpkin?

Painting © 2011 Eleanor Lakin

Painting © 2011 Eleanor Lakin

 

 

CLOWN JACK-IN-THE BOX

Clown Jack-in-the-box circa 1920-1935.
Clown Jack-in-the-box circa 1920-1935.

Maker: Unknown.
Origin: Found in Maryland.
Circa: 1920-1935.
Materials: Carved and painted wood clown head, metal spring, cloth suit, wooden box.
Size: 4 ½” w x 4 1/2” d x 4 ¾” h., 10” h. when open.

Needed something fun to do Saturday afternoon, so headed out to a local antique group shop? And there he was. Look at that smile. How can you not love folk art? What a totally awesome handmade Jack-in-the box. When he popped out of the box, I was smitten. This folk artist definitely had an eye for design, creative imagination and the skills required to create a unique piece of folk art. The maker’s inspiration possibly came from an example seen in a toy store, or a book illustration.

Side view
Side view

The carved wooden clown head has small glass eyes and a strip of black animal hair attached to the top of his head. Ears are carved into the side of the head and accentuated with black paint. The artist painted clown makeup that features a wide winsome smile, arched eyebrows, red cheek and chin dots, and accentuated eye lashes. He wears a multi-colored costume composed of colorful red, green, gold, striped fabrics, and circa 1920-1930 floral fabric sleeves. The clown figure is attached to a metal spring that projects him out of the box when the lid is opened.

Early jack-in-the-box toys were called a punch boxes in Europe. Originally, many of the figures that popped out of the box were Punch or Judy characters or a black devil. The punch box figure in the Brown painting is Judy. Punch and Judy were favourite European puppet show characters.

‘A Surprise Party’ painted by John George Brown in 1888, Accession Number 88.1 by Detroit Museum.
‘A Surprise Party’ painted by John George Brown in 1888, Accession Number 88.1 by Detroit Museum.

‘A Surprise Party’ painted by John George Brown in 1888, Accession Number 88.1 by Detroit Museum.
During the 19th century, Punch boxes or Jack-in-the box toys were made by cottage industry craftspeople working in the Sonneberg and Oberammergau, regions of Germany. Their toys were merchandized through Nuremburg wholesalers and exported to Europe and America. Examples are shown in the Brown painting and early McLoughlin children’s books.

 

 

 

 

Santa Claus and his Works, by geo. P. Webster, published by McLoughlin Brothers, n.d. (circa 1876). Thomas Nast was the illustrator.
Santa Claus and his Works, by geo. P. Webster, published by McLoughlin Brothers, n.d. (circa 1876). Thomas Nast was the illustrator.

I collect old children’s books, and remembered jack-in the box illustrations in McLoughlin Christmas books. These 19th century illustrations show the type of punch boxes made in Germany and sold in American toy stores.

 

 

 

 

 

All About Santa Claus, published by McLoughlin Bros.,New York (1896). Santa is painting the nose of a ‘Punch’ Jack-in-the-box.
All About Santa Claus, published by McLoughlin Bros.,New York (1896). Santa is painting the nose of a ‘Punch’ Jack-in-the-box.

Santa Claus and his Works, by geo. P. Webster, published by McLoughlin Brothers, n.d. (circa 1876). Thomas Nast was the illustrator.

A jack-in-the-box is timeless. Imagine a child’s expression when this grinning clown popped out of the box.

FARM WAGON PULLED BY A TEAM OF HORSES

Toy farm wagon pulled by a team of horses.
Toy farm wagon pulled by a team of horses.

Maker: Unknown.
Origin: Found in Maryland.
Circa: 1930-1940.
Materials: Painted wood horses, wagon and wheels with metal rims.
Size:  32” w x 9 1/2” d x 14”h.

This wooden farm pull toy rolls across the floor when pulled forward. At some point, a piece of wood was attached to the horses’ feet to protect the delicate legs, and prevent breakage. Materials used in the construction include plywood, pine wood, thin aluminium metal, miscellaneous metal fasteners, and small aluminium chains. The maker was obviously familiar with farm wagon design and construction, and knew how to harness and hitch a team of horses to a wagon.

Photograph of a similar horse drawn farm wagon with a green wood box body and red wheels.
Photograph of a similar horse drawn farm wagon with a green wood box body and red wheels.

Farmers and farm hands created toy replicas of horse drawn equipment they used to work the farm. Who was better qualified to preserve our material culture than people who actually experienced it? This is an example of agricultural preservation in the form of a child’s toy.

Back view of wagon and team, that shows the metal wagon rims and wagon box supports.

Back view of wagon and team, that shows the metal wagon rims and wagon box supports.