Originally sold mainly for use in store window displays, clockwork nodders have become one of the most prized of all antique Christmas collectibles. Clockwork Santas first appeared in the late 1800s and continued to be produced as store window displays into the 20th century. Most are key wound with a clockwork spring mechanism inside but some were later electrified with motors and real lights on the Christmas trees the figures would carry. Nodders appear in many animal forms as well, but it is the Santa nodders, or the combinations of Santa with a nodding animal, that can command the highest prices.
Following World War II, the American economy experienced tremendous growth, people by the droves moved into the suburbs and, as a result, the country was transformed into a consumer nation. With the country’s new-found prosperity came a sense of renewed patriotism and the desire to purchase products that were “Made in America”.
After years of war restrictions, and the lack of manufacturing, consumers’ tastes changed from European (German) made decorations to those made in the USA. This new era of wealth, manufacturing and consumerism had a profound effect on the way we purchased and decorated for the holidays.
Christmas ornaments and figurines during this period were relatively inexpensive and easy to produce. Hard Plastic Christmas decorations and other non-breakable materials are characteristic of the 1950’s and 60’s. Santas, angels, bells, and a myriad of other novelty ornaments in festive holiday colors flooded the market via the local 5 & 10 stores like Woolworths and McCrory’s. These small plastic decorations, which were very inexpensive often selling for less than 10 cents, were used as stocking stuffers, party favors and given by thousands of teachers to their students at Christmas. They came in shapes of Santa, snowman, reindeer, elves and a countless number of other shapes usually holding a bunch of cellophane wrapped lollipops or other hard candies. The most popular years for these were from 1952 until around 1958.
The two major manufacturers of these decorations were Rosbro and Rosen of Providence, RI. Other major producers included Bradford Novelty along with Empire, Knickerbocker and TICO Plastics.
Celluloid holiday items are widely collected today as they reflect a charming appeal of days gone by. First invented in 1869 by Albany, NY printer John Wesley Hyatt, celluloid found a myriad of applications in consumer products ranging from dentures, eyeglasses and waterproof collars to vanity items, ornamental combs and jewelry.
By the late 1880s, the first toys, such as simple ball shaped baby rattles with a teething ring or handle attached, were being marketed. Around the turn of the 20th century, German manufacturers began blow molding sheet celluloid into small, lightweight dolls. This was the beginning of a booming industry that spread throughout Europe, Japan and the United States.
The Viscoloid Company, founded in 1901 in Leominster, MA, was America’s most prolific manufacturer of celluloid blow molded holiday toys. At the onset of WWI, trade with European toy manufacturers ceased. Since German design was highly regarded in the toy industry, Viscoloid hired German artist/sculptor Paul Kramme to design toys. His Santa figures were embraced by the public as they were inexpensive and exhibited old world charm. Eventually Kramme and his staff designed toys that represented not only Christmas, but Easter, Halloween and Independence Day.
During the 1920s, Japanese manufacturers copied many designs of German and American origin. The heyday of Celluloid toy production in America dated until the mid-1920s when the Viscoloid Company employed 300 full time workers in the toy making department alone. Celluloid lost favor with consumers because of its dangerous flammability and toy production dwindled by the 1930s. In Europe and Japan, manufacturers continued production until the late 1950s.
Snowmen as a Christmas collectible have become popular in the past 20 years or so. Maybe this is because of our childhood memories and the fun times we had creating our very own snowmen. They were our silent friends who stood vigil in front of our houses.
A variety of materials were used in the creation of all sorts of snowmen; cardboard, paper mache, glass, cotton, metal, wax and plastic. They were made into ornaments, candy containers, figurines and lights.
The top photo is a German candy container from the 1930’s. It opens up on the bottom to reveal Christmas sweets for a child. It is made of cardboard with a mica and paint covering.
The bottom photo is an early figural glass ornament probably from the teens or early 1920’s. It is unique in the sense that it is unsilvered glass, unlike most German glass ornaments from the 20th century through today.
These early Santas were made of paper mache, with clothing of wool felt that was vegetable dyed. Some had mica on their coat and hood which simulates snow. A number of them are candy containers and separate at the waist, revealing a cardboard cylinder in which the candies were placed. In addition, sometimes the Santa would carry a bag or hold a tree with early glass ornaments.
The photo on the right shows an early German Santa riding a clockwork nodder donkey. Santa has an unusual hip length coat and holds part of an early feather tree with a piece of an old candle holder and carries a bag. These figures were often used in department store windows to attract shoppers. This stunning piece was recently sold to a very lucky collector at Bertoia Auctions in Vineland, NJ.
The closeup of the Santa face embodies all the details of the beauty of the paper mache face and artistry of the German masters. He has a long wool felt cap and goat beard. He has a short coat and his clothes are vegetable dyed. Note the details of the eyebrows and all the painting around the eyes. He is pictured with a popular paper mache and wood sheep from Germany. He dates from around 1912-19.
Chalkware Santas (pictured) are often seen and have become a collectible category of their own. Chalkware santas do not command the prices of older, German-made composite Santas and are a great collecting category of vintage Santas for both beginning and seasoned collectors.
There are many types of reindeer, some of the earliest being made in Germany in the 1890’s. They were usually made of paper mache or composition, some of which are then covered with fur, felt, or cloth material. They came in many different sizes too. Some were candy containers (where the head can be removed) and some were nodders (wind-up or counter weight). In addition, there were reindeer with harnesses that were made for pulling sleighs, and some even had Santa riders. Around 1920 metal reindeer were made, and most were about 4″- 5″ tall and usually marked Germany or Japan (1930’s).
There are other types of reindeer that were made later, including celluloid and plastic. In fact, reindeer are still being made today. In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Western Germany made fur covered reindeer with very decorative harnesses and had Santa riders or were pulling sleighs with Santa in them. Early Reindeer are becoming very difficult to find and are demanding big prices. Beware that some reindeer are being reproduced in the old style and sold as old.