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A Tinplate Christmas Putz

By Rev. Philip K. Smith

During the tinplate era, freight trains and passenger trains thundered through Topton, PA, the top of the grade halfway between Reading and Allentown on the East Penn Branch of the Reading (then Conrail, now Norfolk Southern). On a hilltop south of the station, at The Lutheran Orphans' Home, a Diakon Senior Living Community, where a Christmas garden was taking shape. In Berks, Lehigh and Lebanon Counties, such a garden was called a "putz" (pronounced "put" plus "zz"; a "pootz" is something else entirely, beyond the scope of this article). Like the trains and the station, this putz still stands in public view.

"Putz" comes from the German verb putzen, which means "clean," "brighten," or "decorate". Brought to America by the "Unitas Fratrum," commonly known as Moravians, a Putz is a Nativity scene placed beneath a Christmas tree or on a table trimmed with evergreen branches. It can be simple or elaborate, one scene or a series of scenes. A proper putz portrays Jesus' birth. Secular scenes may be added. From Bethlehem, PA, Moravians and Pennsylvania Germans spread this tradition to Allentown, then southwest to Reading and Oley in Berks County and to Hebron in Lebanon County. From there, trade and travel introduced the Putz to other areas, though that name is generally not known outside Moravian and "Pennsylvania Dutch" regions. When toy trains and miniature buildings came along, many a putz was expended to include them, eventually becoming Christmas toy train layouts.

Fortunately, an authentic, old-fashioned Christmas putz survives and thrives in the care of its original owner: the Lutheran Home at Topton, where arranging a putz was a beloved family tradition. This putz is a labor of love constructed over nearly four decades by Mrs. Ida Henry while she was matron of what The Lutheran Home at Topton was then called, The Lutheran Orphans’ Home. She and her three children moved to the Lutheran Home in 1909, when her husband, The Rev. Dr. J. O. Henry, was named Superintendent. They served well for 37 years, retiring in January, 1946. Just as local families set up their own putzes to bring the awe and wonder of the birth of Jesus into their homes, Mrs. Henry decided to construct a putz for orphans in the care of the Lutheran Home. The Christmas story in Holy Scripture would take place in scenes before their eyes. Instead of giving personal gifts to every child each year, Mrs. Henry added something new and different to the Christmas Putz. She invited children to help with the putz as well.

Whenever she needed help or advice about the putz or about pageants staged at The Lutheran Home, she boarded a Reading passenger train at Topton with an ample supply of homemade caramels, rode to Jersey City Terminal, took the ferry to Liberty Street, Manhattan, and consulted the Director of Staging and Scenery at Radio City Music Hall. He told her what to buy, where to get it, and how to create the scene. Then he would give her the best seat in the house to see the current show. Mrs. Henry used a picture post card as a guide when she constructed an illuminated replica of Radio City Music Hall, complete with a gigantic stage, a towering 6,000-pound contour curtain, a mighty Wurlitzer organ (with Virgil Fox at the keyboard), an orchestra in the pit, and dancers performing a spectacular show.

Today, the Putz is displayed in the Old Main Building, where orphans had lived. About 20 years ago, the chapel was moved from Old Main to a more accessible location by the Henry Health Care Center. The vacant space offered a perfect place for the putz. Two levels were built on platforms that would support a Mack truck. Filling 560 square feet, the putz is a living link to the tinplate prewar era. Countless hours of patient and intricate work have given the putz a particular charm. Amid the many scenes, homemade and store bought items mingle in merry profusion. A Marx airplane ride whirls near the circus that Mrs. Henry constructed just before she and Dr. Henry retired in January, 1946. A lithographed roller coaster thrills its riders, powered by the motor from an old Victrola phonograph. Connoisseurs can spot many fascinating figurines ranging from skaters on a pond beneath a 10-foot Christmas tree decorated with antique ornaments, including a Moravian star, to such lovable cartoon characters as Donald Duck (with a long beak as he appeared in 1934) and Barney Google with his horse, Spark Plug, always concealed beneath his long yellow blanket. Near the control panel, where operators can demonstrate it, is a metal toy that has been part of the putz for more than 60 years. A monkey delights children by climbing up and down a palm tree, picking coconuts. Tinplaters smile when they see stations from each of the Big Three.

Spanning the O Gauge Main Line is an Ives glass dome train shed with green panels along the top and clear panels at the bottom. A steady flow of passengers fills the walk leading to an American Flyer big-city station. On the right is a Lionel No. 124 deluxe station with arrival and departure chalkboards by the front doors. Enlivening the brightly lit interior of the Lionel depot are figures from L & H Miniatures of Schuylkill Haven, PA, along the Reading Main Line south of Pottsville. Both cities have restored their Reading stations. These hand poured, trimmed, and painted alloy miniatures blend with older figures on the putz. Enclosing sacred and secular portions are ornamental cast iron fences made by the Dent Hardware Company, Fullerton, PA, north of Allentown and east of Route 145 (MacArthur Road).

On the upper loop, by the zoo and the Christmas tree, is a Lionel No. 126 station lithographed in brick. Passengers can also ride Lyle H. Cain's Toonerville Trolley. The "Toonerville Trolley that meets all the trains" was featured in a renowned newspaper comic strip, "Toonerville Folks," by Fontaine Fox. Those were the days of "Thimble Theatre," "Barney Google," and "Gasoline Alley," where characters aged like real people. In the 1920's, the Toonerville Trolley was offered as a wind up floor toy. Wobbling across the floor, it abruptly stopped and shook vigorously while the Skipper (motorman) turned his control lever back and forth. Lyle H. Cain adapted this trolley for O Gauge and for Standard Gauge. The body is an exact copy of the original. Inside is a DC can motor, painted black to make it nearly invisible. A bridge rectifier changes AC track voltage to DC for the motor. A worm gear on the rear axle propels the trolley. The wobbling gait of the floor toy is recreated by drilling axle holes in the wheels slightly off center. A chain drive connects both axles and keeps off-center wheels running smoothly. The Skipper is mounted on a spring. He moves his control lever as his trolley sways from side to side. This trolley has become a popular feature of the putz.

As a special treat for Tinplate Times readers, I brought to the putz my MTH Tinplate Traditions Ives 1695 passenger set (for a review of this set, click here) and a Lionel 262E restored by Vic Panza. This train could have run on the putz in 1933. It represents a Department Store Special, when IVES LINES decals were replaced by LIONEL LINES stampings and new numbers: 1686, 1685, and 1687. After that, these handsome cars were downgraded with 4-wheel trucks and painted in three different schemes, each less attractive than their original maroon and beige. For some reason, they were sold only in uncataloged sets, though their Standard Gauge counterparts (1767,1766, 1768) were proudly displayed and extolled in Lionel catalogs through the end of the tinplate era. Operators kindly granted permission to pose my tinplate train on the putz and stayed after visiting hours to pack everything up (and put their trains back). Photos are taken at the three tinplate stations, on the upper loop by the Lionel No. 126 station, and by a glass lake filled with miniature skaters. In the wall above the center of the putz is a stained glass window portraying Jesus blessing little children (Matthew 10:13-16). It once stood above the altar of the chapel. It is the only window not moved to the chapel's new location. It is fitting that this window shines above a labor of love that has brought the wonder and joy of the Christmas story to so many children of all ages through the years.

To see the putz, contact Bill Swanger at swangerb@diakon.org. For online maps and directions, use the following: The Lutheran Home at Topton, One South Home Avenue, Topton, PA 19562. Directions are also posted at www.diakon.org/topton

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