There is a collection of over 15 000 wooden toys and Christmas decorations, out of which 5000 exhibits is on display in Toy Museum (Erzgebirgisches Spielzeugmuseum) in Kurort Seiffen. Over 30 000 tourists come to this little village annually to visit the museum and do shopping in the local stores. The village is known for its centuries-old tradition of making toys and holiday decorations, to which crowds of visitors are drawn in particular. The majority of the products reference 19th century forms, nevertheless, enthusiasts of modern craft will find something in the offer as well. A wooden angel, a miner, Holy Family, Noah’s Ark, a nutcracker inside a caricatural form of a ruler, rotating pyramids propelled by warm air, bowling, little horses, roundabouts, small birds, miniature rooms and vehicles – each of the wooden creations has their individual language; a collage of colours, forms, scales, shapes, both traditional and modern, catch the attention of passing beholders. Other things to see there are complicated mechanisms, diversly painted figurines as well as minimalistic, simple blocks. Most of these items are associated with playing, though this is not their intended use, not in the sense of a contemporary wooden children’s toy – often an abstract object that stimulates creativity. The perfect toys, mimicking reality are the very contradiction of genuine fun. At the beginning of the 20th century, Walter Benjamin wrote: “As long as the realm of toys was dominated by a dour naturalism, there were no prospects of drawing attention to the true face of a child at play. Today we may perhaps hope that it will be possible to overcome the basic error – namely, the assumption that the imaginative content of a child's toys is what determines his playing; whereas in reality the opposite is true. A child wants to pull something, and so he becomes a horse; he wants to play with sand, and so he turns into a baker; he wants to hide, and so he turns into a robber or a policeman”[1]. The author shows that the simpler the toys, made from materials available and familiar to man, the more they spark child’s imagination. A piece of wood, a stone, a cone, a chestnut may change instantly into a desired object of fun. Johan Huizinga developed a thesis that through playing, a simulated activity is paradoxically transformed into a real activity, remaining its true self in the process[2].

Wooden toys-decorations from Seiffen are direct contradiction to children’s play and does not serve the purpose of imagining different ways of having fun. They are meant for adults, who purposefully construct mini-collections out of them. They are used as means of creating holiday atmosphere, decorating a room and are objects of one’s pure pleasure. Their aim is to aesthetically stimulate imagination, recall memories of Christmas and childhood. For example, a nutcracker of a shape from Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales is, in a sense, hideous in its caricatural representation. My instinctive reaction when I see it is a negative one. On the other hand, a longer observation brings back memories of the family going to The Nutcracker ballet. I remember raining and snowing, my daughter’s excitement, her eyes full of surprise and elevated atmosphere upon leaving opera house. In the context of these particular memories, the object designed for nut cracking gained new meaning. It was not unsightly anymore, I began to see the details, brushstrokes, curves of painted buttons, the beard that covered lever slot, the number of elements and the order in which paintwork was layered. Three aspects that influenced my decision about the purchase: sentimental, aesthetical and technical, were there.

Apart from the aforementioned reasons, is there any hidden phenomenon that lures a number of wooden angels’ and miners’ enthusiasts, beside local products themselves? I shall attempt to find the answer to the question: why surrounding oneself with items of no commonly understood practical value can be a need? What causes that need: imagination, memories, beauty, tradition? What is the purpose of toys and decorations’ collections and why do they exist in the first place? Do adults play with toys as well? If yes, why would they do this and what does “to play” and “a toy” mean to them? Searching for the answer to the questions above, I will start with a brief toy and decoration manufacturing history in Erzgebirge region.

Erzgebirge region is famous for pyramids propelled by the heat generated by candles, nutcrackers, animals produced using a unique ring turning technique. The figurines of an angel and a miner holding candles in their hands are one of the most important Christmas decorations; the miner as a person elevating light and the angel as a representative of light. First records of Erzgebirge date back to 1324 and are connected with manufacturing sieves for tin ore rinsing, discovered in the mountains. When in the middle of the 17th century the ore started to become depleted, miners focused their interest on wood. Their centuries-old experience of using wood to construct mines and its availability resulted in conversion towards manufacturing accessories made of this natural material. Initially, spoons, sieves, bowls etc. were made. At the turn of the 19th and 20th century, a growing demand for toys in Nuremberg and Sonnenberg caused a shift in production from mercery to items designed for children’s joy. Main themes and patterns came from trade areas; soldiers in formations, carpenter kits, blocks for building cities, wooden apples filled with miniature kitchen utensils etc. A great number of mentioned items was made using turning technique which has become a masterful craft in the region. These days one can order individually assembled turning lathes, saws or handmade wrought chisels – the region is completely self-sufficient in this kind of manufacturing.

Orders coming from bigger cities became larger and required serial production; in Seiffen region an innovative technique of ring turning was invented – it enabled production of multiple copies of the same figurine, for example: animals, houses and accessories for individual toys. A closer look at few-hundred-year old tradition technique may allow the reader its uniqueness. The turning most often involves wet pine wood, the tree stump is formed into a cylinder and then the height of the ring is measured to start turning along the axis. With the use of specifically formed chisels, a desired inner profile is made. At this stage, the external profile is initially formed and the ring is cut out from the tree stump to be turned 180 degrees and placed again on a previously shaped heel. From this moment on, the inside cannot be altered; the only work can be done on the outside. After desired profile is carved, the ring is taken off the lathe and sliced, a drying process begins. Upon achieving desirable moisture, the ring is decorticated into pieces which are then carved and painted.

Changes in trading laws and higher wood prices at the brink of the 19th and 20th century brought yet another innovation in toy-making craft; in order to decrease the volume and transport costs, Heinrich Emil Langer began miniature production and in the following years he specialised in everyday scenes, locked inside a matchbox[3]. There was also search in the area of automatic toys with different driving mechanisms. A visit to the museum and small local shops acquaints with long-time toy manufacturing tradition in Erzgebirge. Simultaneously, such a trip helps us understand just how much the manufacturers are rooted in the local patterns; they are faithful to traditional shapes of the angel, the miner, the nutcracker – portrayals of the Holy Family are often identical, just as they were several dozen years ago. Paints change, certain painterly patterns, details of the shapes and yet, despite all that, one has the impression that it is the same artist and the similar pattern – the tradition continues and historical patterns are restored. The analogy to a myth about Pygmalion comes to mind – the king of Cyprus carved a perfect sculpture of a woman whom he fell in love with. Passionate prayers to Aphrodite made the monument of Galatea alive; Pygmalion and Galatea could then marry and conceive their son, Pafos. One of the meanings of this myth involves relation of art and life that are constantly intertwining. Pygmalion, possessing the power to create ideal objects, animate them with his faith. In psychology there is a term called the Pygmalion effect which describes a situation where a teacher, deeply believing in skilled students, unleashes their potential through sheer motivation[4]. Ernst Gombrich in Pygmalion’s power[5] shows that it is the power that enables the transformation during the act of making: matter becomes animated in the moment of creation. At the same time, Gombrich presents the struggle of artists who are aware of the originality of their work. He quotes Lucien Freud, a painter who claims that creators, while painting, are able to see the possibility to animate the painting but after the work is done, it becomes flat to them.

Walking by the shops in Seiffen I find Pygmalion’s power. It appears that local manufacturers believe in re-establishing the tradition through recreation of aged patterns. In the multitude of exhibits on the shelves, next to wooden figurines standing by the houses, boutiques, manufactures and workshops, one can feel truly magical – the world of Andersen’s and Grimm brothers’ fairy tales. Nostalgy for the times that we neither remember nor fully understand makes Seiffen marvellous; especially in winter, just before Christmas, when the entire village is lit and mountains are covered with snow. Despite that, a careful observer may notice a certain surrealism of some objects; anachronistic – in a contemporary cartoon sense – figurines of a nineteen century cook, a forester or an Osman, in essence, become a cartoon. Matter animated in the process of creation turns into a flat mass after it is placed on a shelf. However, even here one can find interesting exhibits, for instance, simplified blocks of angels playing various instruments. There are also items that seem to be a commentary of the contemporary world – such as a virologist figurine of which a total of 20 000 copies was produced within six months in 2021. The number of sold items, as well as nondecreasing number of visitors, demonstrate Seiffen’s success. Looking closer, I begin to understand the history this region tells – the continuity of settlement, manufacturing and craft. Each item is made without the slightest doubt about professionality – the craftsmanship value is at the highest level. Decorations are handmade and, I believe, that it is a human hand that is the value in itself; the hand is a universal tool giving crafted items added value. A remarkable opportunity to enter the workshops and experience human work, from the manufacturing to planking through semi-finished product, and eventually a finished figurine is of great importance. In this brief moment, Seiffen decorations become alive. To paraphrase Ernst Gombrich, nowadays it is not a painter that animates, but an engineer makes items that work. The echo of these words can be found in the toy museum where automata made by craftsmen propel figurines, exemplifying human genius and skills in mechanical items production. Wooden figures of an acrobat, a tightrope walker, riders, a monkey and a heron decorate the walls of museum’s hall. Each of them has a pendulum fixed to the underside which, upon being set into motion by a mechanism installed in the wall, starts a kinetic circus performers spectacle. A few stories higher, in the temporary exhibition room, figurines of a strong man can be found. A mouse lifting a weight bar, Dracula running away from a dentist, a jockey riding on a horse, a woman pumping the water, are some of the wooden automatic toys designed by a Japanese, Aquio Nishida. The designer visited Seiffen 30 years ago and fell in love with moving toys produced in this region. He began designing and manufacturing unique mechanical toys propelled with a system of levers. Meticulously made with the attention to details, they tell their own story: moon riders on a falling star raise their hands while a rabbit jumps higher with every attempt and descends every time. Mechanisms that move fictional characters are astonishing: cogwheels, levers, gearing. It seems, that the more complicated the mechanism, the more attractive the automaton – the turning of cogwheels hypnotises in the same way as figurine movements can amaze. It is a quality value to create a machine that becomes alive for a moment – one observes not just the actions of a figurine, as is the case of moving Nativity, but the mechanism as the integral part of a toy, visible to stir the imagination. At one point I noticed that I am not interested in the movement itself but the question of how all of this works. I track the way strings are attached, to what place exactly and where they lead. The feeling of pleasure comes shortly afterwards; solving the mystery of the used mechanism brings me joy. Nishida must have felt the same way while he was inventing or finding the use for gears and cogwheels. The game of construction becomes a fact. It is entertaining, amusing, curious, thought-provoking and inspiring at the same time to listen to the tale about inventiveness of mechanisms enchanted in toy forms. Nishida did not create his automata as a manufactory, he opened a one-person workshop where he designed toys that were decorations as well. In order to escape reality for a couple of seconds, one simply has to spin a crank or push a pendulum. Adult people’s intention is not, however, to play in the same way that children do; all they need to do is to take their minds off of things for a short while, focus on the movement, shape or colour to let their eye and brain play.

Seiffen is a magical place where one can feel as part of the Pinocchio fairy tale. There is a Geppetto creating wooden figures living in every other house. Some of the figurines become alive for a brief moment, right before they are purchased, with their originality assured by the proficiency of craft. Others shine and remind of Christmas or attempt to be funny. All of them encourage either one time purchase or a collection-oriented purchase. A large number of makers, much like Lego producers, create items having collections in mind. One year there are angels painted in spring colours while the other – in winter colours. Thousands of them will never be crafted the same way again. One may ask a question: why should I buy an angel? As the author of the text I have no clear answer, only a guess or intuition. Toys and decorations from Seiffen are embedded in the Erzgebirge region’s cultural tradition. Being faithful to this very tradition, masterful craft and the nagging impression that half of the inhabitants could potentially be a fairy tale Geppetto, are the most valuable export products, the assets used by producers creating traditional toys en masse. Some of these toys are like Pinocchio – with each kilometre further away from their birthplace they lose their charm, just as the wooden puppet’s nose grows larger with each lie. There one may find toys that despite their historicising forms beg to be collected or just placed on a shelf. Thus, aesthetics is also a function that motivates purchase, a fact that results from the need to experience beauty in everyday life.


[1] W. Benjamin, The History of toys: Selected writings, Volume 2 1923-1934, The Belknap Press Of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, Anaglia 1999, p. 113 [author’s translation].

[2] Characteristic way in which one perceives reality through playing is also characteristic for magical thinking: “[…] in imagination of the primitive collective mind items, people, phenomena might be, in a way non-comprehensible to us, themselves as well as something different than what they are simultaneously” [translated by Jakub Bujno]. A. D o b o s z: Tożsamość metamorficzna a komunikacja językowa. Poznań 2002, p. 34, as cited in: L. Lévy-Brühl: Czynności umysłowe w społeczeństwach pierwotnych. Original title: Fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures. Warszawa 1992, p. 104-105.

[3] K. Auerbach, Toy Museum of the Erzgerbirge in Seiffen, Erzgerbisches Spielzeugmuseum Seiffen, 2021.

[4] Mit o Pygmalionie – opracowanie szkolne (interpretacja, bohaterowie, motywy), eszkola.pl

[5] E.H. Gombrich, Pygmalions power; Art and Illusion. A study in psychology of pictorial representation, Phaidon, p. 80.