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Noah's Ark History

Erzgebirge History & History of Noah's Ark

Erzgebirge History - the "Ore Mountain" 

Location map of the Erzgebirge RegionWhile the Erzgebirge today evokes images of idyllic landscapes and charming villages, the region has experienced centuries of upheaval, renewal and hardship for its increasing number of inhabitants. This region, where most of our collectibles are manufactured, experienced unique conditions which allowed centuries-old traditions to remain intact.

The Erzgebirge is a mountainous region between Chemnitz (formerly Karl Marx Stadt), Dresden and the Czech border. In pre-medieval times, large forests covered the area so densely that in the Merseburg bishop’s chronicles, it was referred to as Miriquidi, Latin for “dark forest.” The sparsely inhabited wilderness of the aptly named Erzgebirge, which translates to “ore mountain,” became populated primarily through its rich mines.

The first settlers, mostly of sorbian (not serbian) and slavonian origin, are said to have come there shortly after the 5th century. But wide settlements didn’t appear until the 12th century when, in 1170, a huge silver rush attracted workers from central Europe to the hills of Freiberg. The rush formed denser populations, and in 1188 a city was founded near today’s Zwickau. Another 25 years brought the establishment of the first market—the precursors to the popular Dresden markets (among others) of today.

After the silver rush dwindled, tin was discovered in 1436 igniting another rush and creating even more settlements. In addition, the Catholic counter-reformation in the Bohemian countryside (to remedy the ills of the Lutheran reformation) brought in a huge number of evangelical refugees who set roots in the Erzgebirge. Then in the 17th century, the region fell victim to 30 years of war as savage hordes of Swedish warriors brutally ransacked the entire region.

By the 19th century, all the mines produced ever-diminishing yields, triggering new processes, industrialization and a search for new mining resources like cobalt. It was during these times that the Saxons earned their reputation for industriousness and invention. Families needed all their resources to squeeze a meager living from their new occupation—woodcrafting, particularly toy- and collectible-making. As the craftspeople established more efficient methods, their goods flooded markets in the rest of Europe, Great Britain and the US. By the time of the Third Reich, most mining activities, except for uranium, ceased and the people depended heavily on their artisanship for survival.

Though the once dark forest grew thinner and thinner as more people settled the land, the area still harks to an older way of life. Driving through the Erzgebirge, you can still feel the echoes of ages past. Leaving the busy Autobahn, you find winding narrow roads lined with trees, which connect the various small towns. Going through the fir forest, you drive next to streams and climb up to plateaus with far and wide vistas over green meadows and treetops. The twists and turns force you to drive slowly, setting you back into another time as you roll past the many abandoned brick factories. Castles (like the Augustusburg), impressive mansions, old town squares and grand churches evidence the wealth during the height of the mining and ore-processing industries. Miner parades today still connect the people with their history, giving them pride and a sense of belonging.

And thanks to the region’s relative isolation during the World Wars and the communist regime, each village’s cobblestone streets and traditional architecture remained unscathed, if somewhat neglected. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, massive restoration efforts transformed the towns into picturesque tourist attractions. During the more tumultuous times—particularly post-WWII and after the Wall’s collapse—the cottage industry of handcrafted products provided continuity for the people of the Erzgebirge region.

Today, the Erzgebirge is among the most densely populated areas in the former East German Republic.

The History of Noah’s Arks - The Socio-economic Conditions

The story of Noah building his ark is well known, but few know the story behind the making of the thousands of toy arks that found their way into American and European homes in the 19th and 20th century. Deeply entwined with the cultural and socio-economic roots of the mountainous southeastern region of Germany -- what is known as the Erzgebirge in the former kingdom of Saxony -- the tradition of ark making has survived intact for over a century.

While most of these original toys have found respected places in museums and private collections (worth thousands of dollars), they began as the only tenuous lifeline for people in a true cottage industry where entire families (including very young children) were recruited to make thousands of toys each week. Folklorist Karl Ewald Fritzsch (1894 – 1974) recalls his earliest childhood memories in a family of ark builders:

I see myself sitting in a huge mountain of woodshavings at the end of my father’s workbench, surrounded by arks stacked in pairs like pillars…Here with ceaseless work, those arks were made that went into the children’s rooms of the whole world.

While his father and his apprentices “quickly and smoothly” planed thin pine boards, his mother supervised the assembly with tacks and hot bone glue, which bubbled in a big tile oven nearby. While many tasks required the dexterous hands of parents, “the gluing and nailing could soon be transferred to the small seven-year-old hands of the youngest.” The income from such unrelenting industriousness yielded only enough to cover the week’s worth of bread and potatoes.

Conditions didn’t improve through most of the 20th century. Continually at the mercy of wholesalers, who exported and sold the goods to department stores and catalogues, the toy makers’ earnings hardly increased even through the soaring inflation of post-WWI Germany. When the iron curtain fell over the Erzgebirge, the communist regime tightly controlled the earnings of these skilled workers leaving them little hope of bettering their hard lives. In 1990, when the Berlin wall fell and capitalism flooded the former East German republic, workers had to quickly adapt to “free market” rules. Many longstanding ark-building families did not survive the transition. The few that exist today have flourished, replenishing their villages which have blossomed into attractive tourist destinations.

The Market

Part of the popularity of the arks was due to the era’s strict observance of the Sabbath. From Victorian households to the western pioneers, many children were restricted to biblical games. Eleanor Achland, who grew up in Victorian England, recalls:

We began our play with the traditional “animals went in two by two,” and then branched off into variations of Treasure Island or Swiss Family Robinson, or stories made up by ourselves, any of these being tolerably sabbatical so long as we remembered to call the leading characters Mr. And Mrs. Noah, Shem, Ham and Japheth.

As both girls and boys played with these toys, they became favorite gifts to give on Christmas. Though characterized as hallmark Sunday toys for Victorian households and wealthier families, simpler arks often made their way into the modest homes of the American west.

A further attraction of the arks was the plentiful, exotic animals stuffed inside them. Reminiscent of a Barnum & Bailey’s spectacle, the brightly decorated animals from a wide variety of species indicate that the carvers and painters drew heavily from picture books as well as their imagination and observation.

The Craft

While the earliest arks date back to the 1700s, the making of the animal figurine was revolutionized in the mid-1800s when craftsmen began using the lathe, which allowed workers to make these animals quickly with minimal waste. From the trunk of a pine tree, large rings were carved on a lathe (see inset). These rings were then cut into 60 pieces like a pie, each slice becoming an animal figurine. While this innovation greatly simplified the process, each piece still needed to be individually sanded, primed, painted, and finished (with shellac or lacquer) by hand—just as it is done today.

With survival depending on efficient productivity, other innovations developed. Just as ark builders found the lathe, ark painters used stencils to make the intricate patterns and designs on the arks. (Karl Fritzsch’s writings clearly stated that the work of the ark builder and ark painter were separate. The builder sold his goods to the painter who would then carry his wares -- in a basket on his back or on a cart (Smokers - Merchants & Their Trade) - to the market where they would be sold to wholesalers.)

The workmanship of these original arks and the fond memories that collectors hold of these beloved toys make them valuable collector’s items. Most found today require restoration due to the natural contractions of aging wood. One complete set was recently purchased for over $28,000 in the Northeast. The most spectacular sets go for $80,000 or more.

Today’s sets carry the same quality German workmanship -- little has changed over the centuries and many are still purchased as collector’s items. They are often the crowning piece (Noah's Ark) in an Erzgebirge enthusiast’s collection and are one of our most popular items to date.

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