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Pimping up Christmas past

Kevin Cote
December 13, 2019

It is a niche market but an influential one; printed sheets of authentic 19th-century Christmas cutouts. A newcomer has arrived this season, but the images are not exactly what they seem.

Buckingham Palace als Glanzbild in einer Bearbeitung der Illustratorin Barbara Behr
Image: Barbara Behr

Much of the nostalgia evoked by Victorian-era scrap reliefs of Father Christmas and other seasonal icons ultimately comes from their authenticity. Like little else, the muted colors, glazed embossed surfaces and sparkly highlights transport us back to a time when the holiday was viewed and celebrated differently.

That's because the overwhelming majority of motifs — Santas with bags of toys, Christmas trees, angels on high — are actually genuine facsimiles of the exact images that were in wide circulation starting at the end of the 19th century, as the process of chromolithography revolutionized the printing business, and color suddenly exploded into the lives of everyday people.

The die-cut images, printed in groups and partially separated for ease of removal, were used in greeting cards, scrapbooks and as decorations. Think of them as the precursors to the sticker craze among children today.

A Christmas season cutout featuring Santa Claus, a horse-drawn sleigh and children playing in the snow in front of the Berlin department store Kaufhof
Glanzbilder cutouts feature a wide range of innocent themes, but they were especially popular around holidaysImage: Barbara Behr

The earliest and biggest producers of these printed sheets of Christmas images were in Germany and are called glanzbilder. This is one reason why the German Christmas aesthetic was one of its first global export items. Then the imagery was co-opted by advertisers in Britain and the US in the early 20th century. But German printing presses and distributors maintained control over the original 19th-century images of Saint Nicholas, until they started dropping like flies in the 1980s.

Today, a small, family-owned company called Ernst Freihoff Papierwarenvertrieb, in Coesfeld, claims to be the world leader in glanzbilder production. Christmas is their crunch season, when they ship hundreds of thousands of sheets to 21 countries.

"This is by far the most important time of the year for us," claims Anne-Ruth Freihoff, who says this year demand in the US and Japan, not Germany, has been highest.

Virtual monopoly from a garage

Freihoff and her brother Ralph-Thorsten, run the company out of the back of a garage, and they have had a virtual monopoly on ornamental cutouts since 1991. There is only one other firm still producing traditional scrap images on the planet, the Mamelok company in Britain, and that, too, has German roots.

This season though, trendsetting German children's book publisher and merchandiser, Coppenrath Verlag, is getting in the act. Coppenrath, located in Munster, Germany— less than an hour's drive from Freihoff — has brought out an edition of six different sheets of Christmas scrap pictures. Insiders say it is the first time anyone has ventured back into the world of Victorian cutout publishing. And they are already sold out.

Two sets of cutouts lying next to each other and distinguishing the designs of the two firms
Anne-Ruth Freihoff says the Christmas cutouts from Coppenrath (right) cannot be confused with hers (left), so she is not at all concerned about the competitionImage: DW/K. Cote

Coppenrath, with sales of €60 million ($67 million) in 2015, burst on the scene 15 years ago with its hugely successful Princess Lillifee children's book franchise. It also does a large business in traditional advent calendars, another German tradition stemming from the 19th century.

"We've noticed the nostalgia trend just keeps getting stronger," says Gerlinde Kemper, in charge of the Christmas products at Coppenrath's specialty papers unit. "So we thought why not have a go at reviving the glanzbilder?"

Not exact replicas

Only, the Santa Clauses and angels and rosy-cheeked children printed on Coppenrath's "Nostalgische Glanzbilder" series are not exact replicas of historic designs from the 19th century, like those from Ernst Freihoff, the only other ones on the market really. They are altered just slightly, often in barely noticeable ways, to make them more appealing to a new generation of potential customers.

"In the original images the faces are often somber, so I just make them smile a bit so they look friendlier," says Barbara Behr, the illustrator who produced Christmas sheets for Coppenrath. "There is a lot more color in my versions, too. That's probably because I work on them in the summer, when the birds are tweeting outside my window."

Behr has become an expert on 19th-century scrap pictures, and where to find the originals she uses as the basis for her designs. She has over 350,000 electronic images in her archive, and the artist combines and modifies them in Photoshop in her work for Coppenrath. The images she has stockpiled from archives and collections are all copyright free, because their creators have been dead for so long.

The warehouse is empty

Behr says she once approached market leader Ernst Freihoff about her technique, but they were vehement in sticking with their concept of producing exact replicas.

"So I was delighted when Coppenrath finally decided to venture beyond advent calendars and try out the real thing," says Behr. "If it was up to me, they would have done this 10 years ago."

While the old school glanzbilder from Freihoff are found mostly in stationary stores and hobby shops, Coppenrath's strength is in bookstores and department stores. The company started shipping Behr's sheets in the fall. Coppenrath says it is too early to tell how consumers are responding, but the warehouse is empty.

Behr thinks her pimped up Christmas scrap reliefs will do just fine with a new generation of buyers. "Cutouts like these were popular in the 1960s when I was a school girl," she recalls. "I think now that most of my schoolmates are grandmothers, they will see these and remember them, and want to show them to their grandchildren."

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