Pete's Putzing Past
I had the greatest Grandmother in the world. Her house was a magical maze of treasures. To a little boy, her front room was a dream come true. Nick-knacks in every corner and on every shelf gave testament to her worldly travels. Rows upon rows of books towered from floor to ceiling with the picture books being closest to the floor. We little people were always encouraged to keep ourselves busy looking through the many colorful publications. The keeper of this eclectic collection was my Grandmother, a lady we lovingly called "Nanny."
It was Christmas at Nanny’s house that aroused true wonder in youthful imagination. From the family car we could see the faint glow of Christmas lights three blocks away. Her three story Victorian house sitting on the corners of 99th and Prospect on the south side of Chicago was the very house in which I was born. We lived on the third floor until I was five so I had the chance to spend a lot of time with my Nanny. I’m sure that these were the days that influenced my need to be surrounded by fun and fanciful things.
Halloween and Christmas were my Grandmother’s favorite holidays and she celebrated with much decoration and fanfare. We couldn’t get the car door open fast enough. My sister Sue and I would gallop up the front porch steps as fast as our little legs could carry us. Waiting at the front door was Nanny for her customary three kiss greeting. A kiss to the left cheek, a kiss to the right cheek and a peck on the lips. I don’t care if there were a hundred visitors; everybody received three kisses. My sister and cousins would rush to the Christmas tree ogling all the antique ornaments and glass beads. The bubble lights helped to make the tree shimmer with a dazzling display of colors.
But I always headed to the fireplace mantle. From my vantage point, standing way above my head was “The Village”. Nanny had the special touch to bring her putz scene to life. The lead figures were skating on a mirror of ice. The skiers were sliding down the cotton covered hills. I loved it all, from the fences to the people and the animals. It was the little cardboard houses that I came to see. I don’t know were the fascination with these came from but I was smitten with the idea that I could live in this Christmas Village. I would have my grandfather, Gocky, hold me up in the air so I could get a better look, ah the magic. I would eventually fall asleep on the couch fighting my heavy eyelids but daring not to take my eyes off my miniature Christmas town.
As the years pass and we grow up, sometimes leaving behind a fond memory or two. But somewhere in the back of our mind lays an unforgettable image. So as it were, I was recalling this little Christmas village to my new wife Becky, some thirty years ago. I reminisced about Nanny’s special Christmas village and how every year it changed. A new house, larger in scale and the addition of street lights. After that conversation I didn’t think much more about it. That Christmas, 1984, I peeked at the labels of the brightly wrapped presents under the tree. I evidently was a good enough boy to have five nice sized packages with my name on them. Of course, I picked them up, shook them a little bit just to see if I could figure out what lay hidden inside. To my surprise there was not much weight to any of these colorful boxes and no rattling either. I’d have to wait for Christmas Eve to find out what treasures waited to be discovered.
Finally Christmas Eve arrived and after sharing a spirit or two with family and friends it was time for the traditional opening of presents. After much scrambling the presents were handed out to the proper recipients. I savored mine until the last. As I teasingly opened my first gift I was treated with a most wondrous surprise. A Large Putz House! Beautiful, stunning, in pristine condition and there on the front lawn stood a bisque Santa. The memories of my Nanny’s Christmas Village came flooding back to me. With my wife’s insistence I opened up the second package. My eyes couldn’t have been more telling of my appreciation than when I pulled from the box another, even larger putz house. And then a third and a fourth. By the fifth, I was addicted to these tiny treasures.
Those first five houses sent me on a journey that would change my life. The first five houses came easily because they were found together at the same antique store. I started hitting flea markets, antique toy shows, antique stores and malls but with little success. I had the money and the time but my collection was growing at a snail's pace. Very frustrating. Then all of a sudden someone came up with an enterprising idea and “E-Bay” was born. Be careful what you wish for it might come true. I remember hitting my first one hundred mark, before you know it I had two hundred of these cardboard Christmas houses. “Time to buy more display cases” I told my wife. Our house was already a museum with shelves filled with antique magic tricks, vintage MIB Disney, newly unearthed Indian artifacts and much much more. Then I had five hundred houses then six. Some of the collections had to be relegated to storage. At seven hundred houses you start to forget which houses you already possess, so you wind up with doubles and triplicates. That’s when I decided that I was going to create a catalog of Putz Houses, a Collector’s Guide. At the time I started the collector’s guide I believed that there couldn’t be more that a thousand different styles of houses, so my catalog should be achievable. As of this writing I have well over two thousand houses and growing. Many of my fellow collector’s have houses I have never even seen before. Because new houses keep showing up all the time it looks like my Collector’s Guide will be an on-going project.
As an owner of a printing company, I'm in a perfect position to publish, to die cut and professionally print the replacement parts for our treasured putz houses. I have dedicated a great deal of time in these past 12 years to help preserve our hobby. One such project that kept me in my basement for three years was rediscovering the Japanese art of making Coconut textured covering. I love experimenting in my little laboratory hidden away in a corner of my dungeon. I know that whatever I learn, I have the most wonderful group of friends and fellow collectors that I can share my knowledge with.
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