Electrifying and Animating Maryland’s Christmas Gardens
The image of an electric train going around a Christmas tree is now almost as iconic to the holiday as the tree itself, especially in America. And while a simple decorated tree and a single loop of track can fulfill the requisite scene, the real joy is in the trappings—the lights, the miniature structures and details, and sometimes even moving features that create an animated fantasy world.
This phenomenon is now almost universally recognized and nostalgically enjoyed, but in fact—like most things—it has a specific and local history—one that connects to Maryland and even more specifically to Baltimore. The resulting national phenomenon of Christmas train gardens may be one of our state’s most enduring contributions to American folk tradition—a role largely unrecognized both outside and even inside the state.
Briefly described, an original early Christmas Garden (c. late 19th century) was a raised wooden platform whose central feature was a Christmas tree stand. Its perimeter was bounded by a quaint picket fence, and its interior contained various miniature features—often a crèche, a dollhouse, or a miniature secular village. It could be populated with figures and animals, and landscaped with either wintry or green scenery. Needless to say, the tradition spread and became generically known as a “Putz,” from the German word for to clean or to decorate. As with most folk traditions, Christmas Gardens’ exact origins are obscure.
The gardens first arose within Baltimore’s German immigrant communities, often Moravian by denomination, but the question of whether the specific form existed beforehand in the old country remains open. It was more likely a wholly American innovation that nonetheless tapped into myriad preexisting German handicraft traditions. I found no exact reference to Christmas Gardens per se when searching the internet in German, save for one advertised for sale whose owner unfortunately did not respond to my questions. But it is easy to imagine how Christmas Gardens arose during Baltimore’s influx of German immigrants, before WWI tempered the outward cultural expression of German-American communities.
We know very well where related German miniature handicrafts originate: Cuckoo clocks, with their detailed woodland carvings, come from German-speaking Switzerland. Twirling Christmas pyramids, mimicking larger animated German “Glockenspiels,” came from the Ore Mountains of Eastern Germany while intricately carved figures and crèches originated in the Alpine villages of Southern Germany. Put these ideas together in an American context and you could easily imagine a Christmas Garden. Against that background it is fascinating how Christmas Gardens evolved from static displays into a celebration of motion, light, and emerging consumer technology, and gave rise to the national holiday pastime of train layouts.
One answer may parallel the origin of the gardens themselves, that 19th century German culture prized scientific and technological innovation—and especially intricate mechanisms. Then as now, Germans artisans were among the most accomplished and enthusiastic toymakers, watchmakers, lens makers, and technologists of all kinds, for whom it was natural to meld their proficiency with their craft traditions—like Christmas Gardens. Many emerging Christmas Garden features drew on German dominated new product areas, like lithographed clockwork toys and model trains.
Before deconstructing animated Christmas Gardens in particular, one should step back and reconstruct the world in which they came about. A critical point to understanding any past world is to avoid the tendency to view it retrospectively from the present. While we know how things evolved, people in earlier times had no real idea where things would go, or what a logical path into the future would be.
Regarding consumer appliances, we now recognize electricity as the nearly universal power source. Clean and safe, it can produce almost any motion, illumination, or sound required by any small, animated device. It is as perfect for Christmas Gardens as for anything else because it can simulate almost any activity of the outside world, indoors. But that future knowledge was not necessarily apparent to tinkerers before the consumer electronics age.
In late-19th century America, the consumer world was being transformed by the introduction of small scale mobile power. Until that time the consumer world, even the manufactured consumer world, was essentially manual. Indeed, industry had been mechanized and automated—mostly by cumbersome stationary steam engines—and had already transformed and improved the material quality of people’s lives with new infrastructure and advanced manufactured goods.
But even the most advanced consumer products, from treadle sewing machines to typewriters to bicycles, still required human power to be put in motion. As the idea of self-activated personal devices gradually took hold, it was not clear what mobile power sources might prove practical. A first thought was often to simply downsize what was already known or in use on a larger scale, like external combustion (steam), water power, gravity, or clockwork. And for toys, that impulse was reinforced by an assumption to use the same motive power as used by the full-size prototypes. Toy sailboats employed cloth sails. Model aircraft and racing cars used, until very recently, miniature gas engines. And some toy railroad engines were first powered by, you guessed it, live steam—more about that later. Early Christmas Garden animators improvised and successfully enlisted a variety of power types, including water pressure and clock weights, giving no thought that these devices might seen quaint or limiting to us looking back.
The electrification of American homes began in the 1890s, first in the cities and later in rural areas, and consumer electrical devices followed. This did not happen all at once and not at the same pace everywhere. The idea of universal electrification was very different from the realization of it. Even in 1930, deep into the industrial 20th century, nearly a third of American homes were still off the grid. Bear in mind that the very idea of universal electrification and the universal appliances that might accompany it only existed, perhaps, in the futuristic imagination of visionaries like Edison himself—if anywhere. The first systems wired into homes were merely lighting systems—there were no wall outlets. What would outlets be for, when there were no electrical appliances? And who would develop such appliances, when there were no outlets to plug them into? Forward-thinking minds eventually saw their way past the catch-22. In fact the devices came first—by plugging into existing light sockets.[i]The first power cords did not have the now familiar two-prong plug, but rather a fitting that looked exactly like the screw-base of a light bulb. Here is such a plug on the end of an early string of Christmas lights. **
The next innovation, a receptacle that screwed into the socket, allowed easier plugging and unplugging without twisting the cord, but still left the consumer choosing between using a device and having the light to see it.
It wasn’t until WWI that houses began to have separate wall outlets, and even then it was often only one to a room. Off the grid, rural households wanting to use electric lights or so-called “city” appliances could only install a gas generator, or “light plant”—at considerable trouble and expense. In this environment, using electricity to animate Christmas gardens wasn’t necessarily obvious.
The three areas where technology brought Christmas Gardens to life were illumination, animation, and finally electric trains—which could bring with them even an element of sound and smell. I’ll address these themes in turn. Lights and illumination were long a part of European Christian ceremony, often in the form of candles, oil lamps, or stained-glass windows, and illumination became a central part of Christmas decorating and then Christmas Gardens.The tradition of lighting an evergreen tree with candles began in the 1600s in Germany and was made more practical in America in 1878 by the invention of clip-on metal candleholders. Years later the Edison Electric Light Company put the first colored electric lights on a tree in its vice president’s parlor in New York City. In 1903, General Electric made pre-wired strings of electric Christmas lights available to the general public. Hot incandescent lights were not necessarily the safest combination with dry pine needles, but they were far safer than candles. More importantly, they could be left burning to maintain a festive atmosphere. Candles were only allowed to burn under close supervision for about thirty minutes and with a sand bucket nearby—a singular and short-lived event. It was natural for colored lights to then migrate from the tree itself to the Christmas Garden below, realistically illuminating buildings, streetlights, and other features.
Electric Christmas lights evolved over time to be safer, cheaper, and lighter. Early strings had only seven to twenty-four bulbs, while modern micro incandescent or LED strings may contain a hundred and may blink or change color. The first bulbs are described as having small openings to vent exhaust gas from their consumable carbon filaments. Their wires were insulated with braided silk fabric and the sockets were heavy ceramic. Bulb specifications were first standardized by General Electric with the certification of “Mazda” for tungsten bulbs in 1909. The trade group National Outfit Manufacturer’s Association (NOMA) set socket standards in 1925. Eventually the industry settled mostly on a few sizes, first C6 and then C7 in 1934 for indoor use and larger C9 for outdoor, with two corresponding screw base sizes, E12 and E17. In this case “C” stands for candle profile, “E” is for Edison-type screw base, and the numbers are the glass diameter in eighths of an inch. In 1921, convenient connectors came on the market plug strings of lights together without tools.
Many novelties stood out over the years, including elegant stars in the 1930s, with colored lights inserted into either colored glass star ornaments from Czechoslovakia by Matchless or into Lucite star ornaments from Japan by Krystal, and similar but less expensive Rosettes with foil reflectors, also from Japan. There were short-lived but pioneering Sylvania fluorescent bulbs at the end of WWII when conventional incandescent materials were diverted to the war effort, bulbs formed in the shape of figures or animals from Japan after the war, and NOMA bubble lights also after the war, an odd but extremely popular adaptation of an idea originally conceived for commercial signage. The first lights that twinkled came in 1956, at the same time the first fairy or mini lights were coming into use from Italy.
The lights on a Christmas Garden were often a combination of actual Christmas lights and other types of small lights for particular effects. Streetlamps could be purchased from toy train companies, or made from bent tubes fitted with either C6 Christmas lights on small signal bulbs.
The most wide-ranging area of Christmas Garden animation involved moving or animated features, where garden builders employed any available means to accomplish almost any effect—often using repurposed power from existing household or other found sources. Favorite ideas were moving or animated figures, revolving or twirling Ferris wheels, carousels, wind mills or water wheels, or even possibly gliding skaters on a pond or aircraft moving on wires. I was fortunate to find two exceptional Christmas Gardens in MdHS’s collection that took these ideas to the highest level, and that illustrate the extent of builders’ technical creativity.The first Christmas Garden with moving features was donated by Miss Phyliss A. Bailey, the granddaughter of its maker Frank E. Bailey, in 1967 and it exemplified the application of pre-electrical power sources. The donation included a technical description by Charles E. Bailey who was likely the maker’s great grandson, and I will describe its workings in his own words:
“The garden had its start about 1915 in the 1600 block of North Monroe St. In a very few years it occupied the better part of the family living room with just sufficient passage space left for viewing…
Several of the garden items, such as the old mill, the pond, and the fountain were water operated. A small boat, with a miniature doll passenger, made the rounds in the mill race as water powered the water wheel. Pipes for the
water supply and over-flow were run the length of the basement and up through the living room floor. After Christmas the holes in the floor were carefully plugged.
Other garden items, such as the may pole, the ferris wheel, the merry-go-round… [and] the dutch mill were mechanically operated. They were driven from a master shaft with pulleys of different ratios. Power was supplied by old
clock works and weights. Each garden item had its pulley system. Some of the pulleys were hand carved by pen knife to attain the proper ratio and operating speed. An old fashioned music box, also pulley driven, played tunes and
supplied music for the garden.”
The second exceptional example of an animated Christmas Garden, and one which some of you may be familiar with if you have come to MdHS at Christmas time over the years, was built by August William Roehner between 1920 and 1939.
This elaborate set of two gardens—the first following a religious Nativity theme and a later one from 1926 creating a secular Santa’s Workshop fantasy-land—featured hundreds of hand-carved and painted animated figures driven by an extensive system of belts and pulleys similar to that in the Bailey garden. The Roehner gardens, originating a few years after the Bailey garden, used modern electric motors for motive power—probably repurposed from early household appliances like the clothes washer on display.The final and most enduring technological element, and the one that permanently earned its place in our common culture, was the introduction of the electric train. Two questions may immediately come to mind: Why trains? And why electric trains? The answers are many and intertwined. As mentioned earlier, there were other animated toys, and other kinds of power. Paul Race of Family Christmas online posed the same queries, noting that trains really have nothing to do with any religious or imported European holiday traditions.
Race proposed that, at the time electric trains became involved with Christmas, there were simply a lot of positive contemporary associations. People visiting family often arrived by rail—especially GIs returning after the World Wars. Packages also arrived by rail, if they weren’t dropped down the chimney. And railway stations were a hubbub of activity during the comings and goings of the holiday season. He attributes electric trains’ staying power—far beyond the popularity of real trains themselves—to nostalgia for simpler times.
A more cynical explanation might come from the very source of many of the trains themselves, America’s monolithic Lionel Train Company. Although himself Jewish, Joshua Lionel Cowen heavily promoted his product as a Christmas staple. Race also noted the economics of buying electric trains—that their expense as a gift befitted only the most special occasions, like Christmas, and that the base of the tree was a natural place to set it up when new. Most 19th-century homes didn’t have surplus recreational space, and if the train could not be permanently installed, the following Christmas would be a natural time to bring it back out.
I would propose a third possibility—the natural attributes of the electric trains themselves as festive, communal toys. Let’s consider trains and toy trains.
Railroads were one of the most viscerally appealing inventions of the industrial age. People had direct and close contact with trains—unlike the equally imposing factory stationary engines and other mammoth creations that powered industrial infrastructure. Trains were far faster than any vehicle they had experienced—achieving speeds up to 80 mph even by 1850—and they were huge. It was natural to model new children’s toys after something that had so thoroughly caught the public consciousness.
The first toy trains were simple pull toys. Some didn’t even have wheels, but were simply sculpted wood decorated in the form of a train for a child to pull across the floor by a string. But within the first generation of the age of steam, a discernible industry of more realistic manufactured toy trains arose. There were a handful of toy manufacturing centers around the world supporting a few dozen prominent makers, plus individual toymakers in odd places and even trains from companies not specializing in toys. In Europe there was primarily Nuremberg, Paris, and London, and in America there was New York and Chicago.
After the Civil War, pull trains became more elaborate, rolling on wheels and having separate train cars. The most common material was soldered tin-plated sheet steel (sometimes salvaged from food cans) which was colorfully painted or lithographed, but in America heavy cast iron was also popular and allowed more three-dimensional detail.
There were also powered floor trains, mostly using either clockwork or flywheel mechanisms which until then had been popular with toymakers’ for all kinds of trinkets, or even live steam as I mentioned before.
Live steam floor trains were elaborate and expensive, and probably catered as much to adults as to children. In any case they probably required adult supervision to operate safely and successfully. Sometimes the wheels could turn or were even permanently set at an angle so the train would travel in a circle, since no track would guarantee its trajectory. Live steam toy trains usually used burned alcohol as fuel, and earned the nickname “dribblers” for the mess of water and condensate they would leave on the floor.
The 1871 introduction of sectional toy train tracks by the American live steam producer Beggs hinted at the first possibility of permanent or semi-permanent “layouts” which could eventually contribute to Christmas Gardens. But the above described means of propulsion, while adequate for engaging play, were not well suited to that. At their best, clockwork mechanisms could manage two or three laps of the prescribed oval track before the locomotive had to be rewound—often involving disconnecting it from its cars and picking it up—and it could well stop somewhere inconveniently out of reach like behind the tree. On the other hand live steam and alcohol burners, while offering an extremely satisfying reproduction of the steam experience, were as dangerous under a dry Christmas tree as were lighted candles upon it.
Despite these drawbacks, I don’t believe the impulse for electric toy trains was due to practical considerations of play, and it certainly had nothing to do with the needs of Christmas Gardens. Rather, the first toy electric trains were simply and logically operating replicas of the first real electric trains. Electric streetcars came into use in the 1880s, and full-scale electric railroad locomotives followed in the next decade. They were first used to pull trains through long urban tunnels where coal smoke was a problem. The first such electric tunnel engine was in London in 1890, and the first in America was in Baltimore in 1895. An electric tunnel locomotive would pull the whole train through, steam engine and all.
The first American electric toy train was a model of that very Baltimore train, and toymaker Jehu Garlick of Patterson, New Jersey produced it within a year of the real train’s introduction. That train incidentally ran fifteen feet past where my desk used to be when the Historical Society offices were in the old Greyhound Terminal building and my office was in the basement facing Howard Street. The toy was in fact a very lifelike rendition, both in appearance and operation. A key to making electric toy trains practical was one detail that differed from their full-size prototypes—they were powered solely through the main rails, not from overhead wires or an external third rail. The rails were electrified remotely, at first with wet-cell lead acid batteries like in a car, then by dry-cell, and finally by stepped down wall current through a variable transformer. The result was toy making’s earliest example of “remote control.”
The fortuitous thing about these electric train models was that they turned out to be wonderful toys. The combination of controllable power contained on a fixed track made a participatory toy that was literally fun for all ages. Older users could realistically simulate the operation of a real train, stopping at stations to pretend to load or unload passengers and cargo, and then accelerating on straight stretches. But even a four-year-old could manage the train well enough to keep it moving without jumping the tracks. And when no one wanted to actively run the train, it could be set to a moderate speed and simply run on its own. This last attribute suited electric trains especially well to Christmas Gardens, where they sometimes served a supporting role to the tree.
When the appeal of electric train sets quickly became clear, makers realized the format could be equally applied to steam train prototypes, not just to models of actual electric railways. Steam trains were more familiar to most buyers, and their exposed mechanical workings—visible pistons and connecting rods driving the wheels and intricate valve gear letting the steam in and out—made them intriguing to watch in motion. These workings could be simulated on a toy that was nonetheless powered by electricity, and made toy trains even more attractive.
The two main eras of old electric toy trains are pre-WWII and post-WWII and, although there was much overlap, the trains of each era tended to have a slightly different character. As a broad generalization, the earlier electric toy trains were larger and more often made of thin, tin-plated steel with shiny nickel-plated trim. Later trains became progressively smaller and featured cast bodies with more three-dimensional detail, first in metal and eventually in plastic. In America before the war, the big toy manufacturers were Ives, Lionel, Knapp, and American Flyer. Many well-loved early makers didn’t survive the Great Depression, and almost immediately afterward a handful of small niche companies sprang up to reproduce old favorites. After the Depression and WWII, American toy trains were primarily manufactured by Lionel, American Flyer, and Marx—a less expensive lithographed tin alternative. There were of course many others, especially smaller and niche makers. And although there were excellent contemporary European brands—especially from Germany—their importation during this period was hindered by the wars, and also by the fact that American and European prototype trains were notably different and did not translate easily in the domestic toy market.
There had always been differences between manufacturers who emphasized realism and produced models made to near-true scale, and those whose products were toy-like caricatures of the real thing. These differences became more pronounced after WWII, and eventually two hobbies moved further apart and are now almost wholly separate: those collecting and operating toy trains and those building realistic scale model railroads.
An early difference between these philosophies showed itself in the choice between 2-rail and 3-rail systems. Two rail systems, where one rail provides positively charged power and the other negative, looked realistic but proved limiting or even dangerous to freely assembling a track layout. A miscalculation in connecting a reverse loop of track back on itself could unexpectedly produce an electrical short. Three rail systems, made popular by the dominant American producer Lionel in 1906 but seen as early as 1897 on the very earliest Carlisle & Fitch electric trolleys, provided positive power through a third, middle rail while both outer rails were negative. Tracks could be assembled in any arrangement without risk of a shock. This was a boon to electric train play, but came at a steep price to realistic appearance. The two systems still compete to this day. And there are other differences, such as the different emphasis of scale on the one hand, which represents the ratio in size between a model and its full-size prototype and is a model-builders’ concept, and gauge on the other, referring to the distance between the rails which is a practical toy makers’ priority. In the story of toy trains these related ideas sometimes corresponded but often did not.
After the Depression and the industry shakeup that ensued, new, smaller scales like S and HO (1 /64 and 1/87 respectively in the 1930’s), TT (1/120 in 1946), N (1/160 in 1964), and Z (1/220 in 1972) accommodated modelers who focused more on scale realism, creating expansive scenery with realistic trains of a hundred tiny cars or more.
Some modern toy makers have gone in the other direction, re-introducing toy electric trains, especially those marketed for Christmas, of even large scales and more fanciful in nature. In 1968 LGB in Germany introduced G scale, approximately 1/22 in scale, which is in effect a recreation of the old pre-war gauge 1.
In conclusion, I posit that the animated Christmas Garden was one of the purest celebrations of early 20th century consumer technological enthusiasm. It sprang naturally from the popular culture of a unique moment in time, when new consumer technologies were excitingly potent, still imminently approachable, and whose essential character was not yet fixed. In contrast today’s techno-junkies work on a very different level, creating their art and craft in the virtual space between silicon chips and the cloud, communicating and collaborating in real time and across continents, while they are necessarily physically detached from their digital creations. Yesterday’s enthusiasts worked directly with their hands in a world more limited by the physical constraints of time and space, but it was every bit as new and full of creative potential to them. Their world was different from our own, but one that our sophisticated present could not have existed without. As a vestige and reminder of that world, the animated Christmas Garden is well worth the continued nostalgic attention it enjoys. (Paul Rubenson)
[i] “Small Things Forgotten…,” Schroeder, Fred E. Technology and Culture. Vol. 27 No. 3, July 1986 Johns Hopkins Press: p.525–543.
Other sources and suggested further reading:
Levy, Allen. “A Century of Model Trains,” (New York: Crescent Books, 1974)
Sutton, David “The Complete Book of Model Railroading,” (New York: Castle Books, 1964)
Paul D. Race, FamilyChristmasOnline.com
Bill and George Nelson, OldChristmasTreeLights.com.
Train Collectors Association, https://traincollectors.org/