Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sweet, Sweet Santas

QUESTION: I found this old-world German Santa candy container in an antique shop a couple of months ago. He’s made of papier mach  and stands about 6 inches tall. He’s wearing a cone-shaped hat and carries a small Christmas tree. A faint stamp on the bottom says “Made in Germany.” This little Santa comes apart in the middle to reveal a lined interior. Can you tell me more about this little gem?

ANSWER: You have indeed discovered a little Christmas gem. What you have is a Santa candy container made in Germany around the turn-of-the-20th-century. Called a springhead, this little novelty features a Santa wearing a red-flocked coat and a cone-shaped hat. He also carries a small Christmas tree decorated with colored beads.

Of all the holiday decorations produced since the mid-19th century, few remain as cherished as early German Santa Claus candy containers. These handmade characterizations of Father Christmas remain a popular collectible. 

The manufacture of Santa candy containers began in the 1880s. Makers sold them to an eager American market. By the end of the decade, U.S. retailers offered their customers German-made Santas in a variety of sizes and styles.
Selling for a mere five cents, these Santas represented old Kris Kringle in snow-covered garb. Sometimes makers added gold tinsel to represent sparkling snow. Santa containers came in a variety of sizes, from five to seven-and-a-half inches tall. Santa, himself, had a finely painted red face and white beard and wore a heavy coat. Other Santas wore felt robes trimmed with lamb's wool or felt. Purple crepe paper sometimes lined the inside of the outfit. Some of the Santas carry a tiny wicker basket at their waist or on their back.

The Germans couldn't make them fast enough. The making of these early candy containers involved eight to ten families, each responsible for different areas of production. One family might fashion the boots, another would create Santa's clothing, while another would add Santa's rabbit-fur beard. But the most important step involved painting the face.

Over the years the details of Santa’s face changed. One of the biggest influences was the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” that portrayed Santa as a jolly old elf with a thick, flowing white beard and a white fur-trimmed suit. The public's impression of Father Christmas as a stern, thin old man changed dramatically in the late 19th century when Thomas Nast began illustrating St. Nick as a fat, jolly elf-like character for Harper's Weekly.

People originally saw St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, as a gift-giving old man who rode a white horse and gave goodies to children. Father Christmas took the initial image of St. Nicholas and gave it a twist, making him an old bearded man who doled out punishments as well as rewards.

Residents of certain parts of Germany saw Christkindchen, the German Christ child, as a gift giver. The English butchered the pronunciation of the name, so that today he’s popularly known as Kris Kringle. This figure traditionally wore a white robe and a white jeweled crown, traveling the countryside on a mule. He was said to have been accompanied by Pelze Nicol, a boy with a blackened face. Yet even Pelze Nicol developed into his own personality, becoming Belsnickle, a sinister-looking Santa who punished bad children.

Important scientific discoveries have also been incorporated into these Christmas figures, the most notable being the invention of the light bulb. Between1907 and 1910, the Germans made Santa candy containers featuring an electric lantern strapped to Santa's chest. The figure also held a feather tree decorated with three electric bulbs. A battery operated all four lights.

Likewise, Santa's means of transportation hasn't remained static over the years. Some candy containers show Santa on a sheep, donkey or mule, while others had him riding a sleigh made of moss. The Germans crafted log sleighs with the bed of the sleigh large enough to hold both candy and small wooden toys known as Ergebirge.

Where makers placed the candy and dried fruit and how they made them accessible varied from one container to another. Santas also carried different types of baskets. Some simply had a cloth or felt bag for goodies. Some candy containers came in two pieces, having removable heads or a cardboard tube that separated when Santa's legs and torso, enabling them to be pulled apart. Other examples, such as those showing Santa on a chimney, had a plug on the bottom or a paper seal.

Regardless of the type, people gave Santa candy containers mostly as gifts. After the receiver ate the  candy, they used the container as a holiday decoration. Even though people brought out these Santas for the holidays each year, they could be easily damaged not only by overzealous children allowed to play with the Santas, but also by prolonged exposure to sunlight. While children might physically destroy the candy container, the sun did consider-able harm by fading bright-red coats to a light-brown or turning the interior of the garment from purple to blue.

What destroyed the great artistry of German candy containers, however, was competition from foreign countries. By the 1920s the public was more willing to accept plainer-looking Santas, and the Japanese provided them. Although the Japanese based their candy containers on German examples, the fine details soon became too expensive to produce. The public accepted cheaper imitations, trading savings for a loss in quality.

It's that loss of true artistry over the years that makes vintage German-made Santa candy containers so collectible today. Prices begin at about $375 but rarer ones often sell for several thousand dollars.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Little Piece of Home

QUESTION:  Recently I discovered a well-worn copy of the Bible dated 1861 while going through an old trunk left to me by my father. He said it belonged to his father and his father before that. What’s intriguing about this Bible is the inscription inside: “Presented to John C. Gillespie of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to take with him to the field of battle, June 1, 1861.” Can you tell me why my great grandfather would have had such a Bible and why it has been handed down all these years?

ANSWER: Bibles are often what bind families together, even today. This occurred even more during the 19th century, when each person may have had their own personal copy. But this Bible, I suspect, was special, for it belonged to a Union soldier who fought in the Civil War. It’s something he carried with him into battle and which he kept his entire life, passing it down to future generations, after one of the most traumatic experiences of his life.

The Civil War continues to fascinate generation after generation. And with this fascination comes a desire to own a piece of the war, to hold on to a bit of its history.

A collection of Civil War memorabilia often begins with the purchase of a 25-cent minie ball, picked up as an inexpensive souvenir after touring a battlefield. Other people  become collectors after participating in re-enactments, as they replace reproduction articles with the real thing. Still others, perhaps like yourself, become collectors because descendants have passed down items that they carried into battle.

Collections of Civil War memorabilia can be broken into three general categories. Most collectors focus on weapons. Others specialize in collecting military uniforms, as well as associated items such as buttons, patches, badges, buckles, and hats.

And some collect the personal effects of those who left their homes and fought their neighbors on the battlefields of their own country. It’s often these homely objects that intensify the romantic appeal of this horrific war. Collecting what soldiers carried with them to war provides an intimate glimpse into their lives.

Volunteers, assembled in a short period of time, comprised most of the armies of both of the Union and the Confederacy. Men—or more often boys in their teens—reported for duty with hastily gathered supplies, and there was little uniformity about what they brought from home. Although each state was expected to supply its fighting forces with necessities, it was often the mothers, wives, sisters, a and girlfriends who were responsible for the materials that the soldiers actually brought with them when they reported for duty. As a result, there was a great variety of items included in the soldiers' personal effects.

With little idea of how the war would eventually be fought, new recruits generally overpacked, and soon found it necessary to shed their excess personal belongings as the war stretched on. These early recruits often reported with items intended to create a home away from home. Consequently, silver knives and forks, pincushions, and even embroidered booties found their way into camp. The soldiers didn’t anticipate years of war—early recruits signed up for only a few months—and the ensuing movements resulted in the abandonment of these niceties.

Identifying Civil War personal effects has been made easier because most of the soldiers marked their belongings with their names and regiments.

In addition to the items which soldiers brought from home, camp visitors gave soldiers  gifts of food, towels and soap, blankets, hammocks, tobacco and pipes, and pills. Soldiers traded their watches for some of these items. And even though the typical soldier would have appreciated more useful items, god-fearing visitors often distributed  religious tracts. Some gave soldiers sewing kits called "housewives," with which they spent idle hours mending and repairing their clothing. The soldiers played various games, including a primitive form of baseball, as well as poker and cribbage, chess and checkers, dominoes and marbles, and even bet on dice.

As the war stretched on and soldiers found themselves depleting their personal supplies brought from home, they turned to sutlers to replenish their need. Both Union and Confederate governors granted special permits to these civilian merchants. They accompanied the armies with horse-drawn wagons and sold, often at a great profit, the personal items a soldier would find in his pockets or haversack.

Articles owned by soldiers on either side differed little. Instead, social class and military rank are what determined the kinds of items the men carried,, Wealthier men, especially those with higher military ranks, were more likely to carry finer things, more things, and things not absolutely essential to day-to-day existence. On the other hand, many of the ordinary soldiers were poor men, often farmers, or recent immigrants from Ireland or Germany. Their possessions were far more modest.

One accessory common to most soldiers was a wallet, usually of folded leather, lined in linen and held together with a leather strap. Soldiers carried their money—generally not much, as a private's pay was typically $9 a month—and photographs of those at home in their wallets. Leather wallets in very good condition sell for about $65.

Another item that most soldiers carried into battle was a copy of the Bible. These  pocket-sized books are often found in poor condition today because of the amount of use they received. Inscriptions increase their value.  A typical Civil War Bible sells for about $75.

And they wrote. Soldiers of the Civil War kept extensive diaries, and maintained regular correspondence with friends and loved ones at home. Many of the envelopes they used are of particular note with patriotic scenes depicted on them, as are the many writing implements and accessories. Ordinary soldiers wrote on paper with wooden lead pencils, which they purchased from sutlers for a few cents or received as gifts.
Officers, however, often included writing sets in their holdings. Many carried bottles of ink—glass bottles covered in materials like leather to prevent breakage—and pens which, being made of a breakable material, rested in brass tube-like protective cases. Today, uncut Civil War-issued pencils can be had for $5 to $10, and fancy pens in brass cases bring $45.

Pens weren’t the only things transported in protective cases. Whiskey flasks were often covered in leather and encased in silver or pewter. Collapsible tin or pewter cups rested in little tin cases with snap-on lids. Other personally-supplied mess pieces commonly found include combination knife-fork-spoon utensils and plates.

On a more personal level were the items that soldiers carried in leather toilet kits tucked inside their haversacks. Toiletry items such as toothbrushes, tooth-cleaning powder (little more than baking soda), hand soap and shaving soap, brushes, and  mirrors were often packed in these kits. In many a soldier's pack was at least one straight razor with a bone or ivory handle, even though beards were in style.

Each article tells a story, has a message, is worthwhile keeping. The Civil War is about people. Those who fought it are no longer here to tell us about it. So the next best thing is to collect the items they carried.