Note: This is an archive of "Papa" Ted Althof's online tribute to cardboard Christmas "putz" houses and their history. At Ted's request, this archive was established in early 2012. Except for critical updates and announcements, it will remain as Ted left it in October, 2012.
For more information, please scroll to the bottom of the page.

Christmas holly bar graphic


It was long thought there was no good way of cleaning the dry paper houses, especially the Coconuts", whose floss just seemed to grab and hoard the dust. But one fine day Tom Hull came up with this miracle method based on CORNSTARCH.

Take it, Tom:

"Well I'll be darned - the lady who told me that powdered rug cleaners were mostly scented corn starch must not have been far off the mark. One of the little houses I call "little sis" had a bad case of "age spotting" on part of the roof and so it occurred to me that since brushing with a soft brush did nothing I would try a more invasive approach. And lo it worked like a charm. I used a retired denture brush as it was handy but it was a fortuitous choice as it has two ends to work with and the smaller pointed one became useful on the next project I tackled - a very grimy large Hacienda. I would guess that it must have laid on its back in some dirty attic for many years as the front was so grayed but the back was pristine.
Cleaning cardboard Christmas village houses
The first photo shows the work in progress (I wish now I had taken a before shot). My main concern was that it wouldn't rub off any of the watercolor or mica - it doesn't folks! I used short strokes or circular ones and wasn't too gentle with it either. Actually this is a lot less invasive than repainting would be and is just getting rid of years of Pennsylvania coal soot. (Pennsylvania seems to be the national home of the bestest putz houses and the dirtiest.) In the second photo I think you can see the results. I did not do this to the chimney and it is much grayer whereas before it was actually the lightest part of the front - The roof was about the same color as the chimney and is now almost pristine. The worst was the front of the house but it is now more acceptable. This is easy to do and relatively quick albeit somewhat messy.
Cleaning cardboard Christmas village houses

Update from TOM:
"By the way you might want to revise the "DON'T USE ON COCONUTS" crack I made - it does work and with a soft bristle toothbrush like an ORAL B40. It really doesn't break off the coconut that much. It IS harder to get the cornstarch off however, but it still cleans things up. I cleaned up that Orange barn-house with the pottery door using this method and it was really dirty on the front." - Tom H.

THIS IS THE GREATEST CLEANING DISCOVERY YET! It works GREAT! I wonder if one of those small mini-vacuums might be a way of getting the cornstarch back off? I am also wondering if this cornstarch thing might work to clean up dusty old "bottle-brush" pine trees. Work it in and then vacuum it back out? I have been trying to come up with SOMEthing for that job!
- Ted A.

About a year later, Tom augmented the "cornstarch Method" to deal with black mold, mildew and ingrained dirt. Don't use this on cocnuts, but its fine for the sandy/ stucco/flast paint surfaces.

Sent: Saturday, March 19, 2005 5:07 PM Subject: I cannot believe the cornstarch! All I can say is WOW ! I can't hardly believe how good this now looks and how bad it did look. In addition to filthy grime and smoky dirt there was also foxing as well and on the roof even after a good thorough cornstarch bath the roof was still speckled and very grimy. So what "UNCLE" Tom did was to mix Clorox bleach with a little cornstarch enough to make a slurry and applied that to the areas. That followed by a generous amount of cornstarch and that scrubbed around to remove the wet slurry. And it WORKED!
Cleaning cardboard Christmas village houses
You can't even see where the tree was attached which was so clearly outlined in the above photo.
Cleaning cardboard Christmas village houses
This is a pretty accurate photo of this hacienda after the bleach/cornstarch cleaning and with its new base and fence. The original fence portion is on the left side of the base. The Santa is one I created for this purpose. Tom Hull


are the toughest to clean by far. After 50-75 years, the natural shredded cellophane has most often dried and oxidized and become as brittle and fragile as the Dead Sea Scrolls. I have been able to do a fair amount of good with old fashioned "wallpaper dough." This is a "Play-Dough" like substance you can get in well-stocked paint and hardware stores. Make a small ball of it and press that ball down onto the dirty surface firmly, then pull it off. Knead the dirt into the ball and do it again. After a few times you will see it's doing no further good, then move on to the next area. Eventually, your little ball will turn black. Discard it and make a new one. This is good stuff for cleaning any complex surface that cannot tolerate water. I have used it to clean old toy trains, for example. Unfortunately, this will sometimes take a lot of the coconut off with the dirt. There's not much you can do about that, but if a "COCO is really filthy, this will improve the looks of it. It also works on sand and stucco surfaces.
Wallpaper cleaner for old Christmas putz houses
Prior to Tom Hull's development of the "Cornstarch Method," the only thing I had any success with was The only brand I know for wallpaper dough - "Absorene" , made by the Absorene Mfg. Company of St. Louis, Missouri - since 1891. Talk about your enduring products! I wonder if it's their only product? But, it's still on the shelves ....People would make balls of it and roll it over their wall paper - inch by inch. If you can't find actual "Absorene," you can use light-colored or white "Play-Dough." I understand the formulas are very similar. The whole principle is on the order of how we "Baby-Boomers" used to lift pictures off the funny-papers with Silly-Putty. I still find it has it's uses in cleaning old trains and nick-nacks - anything with a complex surface.

Despite the best of cleaning mthods, the old "coconut" floss still gets thin and faded. The final solution will be to replace it! Currently, the search is on to find or build a machine that will shred rolls of genuine cellophane into the somewhat finer-than-cigarette-tobacco particles of the original cellophane floss and produce new "coconut". Then the thing would be to scrape off all the old, repaint with a latex base paint and sprinkle new "coco" on while the paint is wet. If anyone knows of such a machine,
Christmas holly bar graphic


Sometimes you come across dark stains that neither cornstarch nor wallpaper dough will lift. These are generally the result of dusty houses that somehow got wet - watering the tree or whatever - and it just set the dirt in hard and permanent as paint. The final resort for these is the most extreme - BLEACH! According Tom, he even uses it on coconuts and colored paint, but I dunno. I am still leary that bleach would further deteriorate the cellophane by oxidization and fade colors. He shows a white sandy-finished hacienda stucco in this demonstration and for those it would be fine.

Tom Hull -
"I have been bleaching houses for some time and believe that it does NOT deteriorate the houses so am sending these photos for you restoration files. Some of my earliest houses that I did a direct bleaching on have been done several years ago and seem not to have deteriorated the colored parts. WARNING! Do not get bleach on red coconut as it turns it DARK. Other than that I have used it on both coconut houses and Haciendas. Yes it works well.

FIRST clean it up with the cornstarch treatment. This hacienda was VERY dirty and required this treatment to remove any dirt and grime. In this instance the house is very yellowed likely from adsorbing years of house heating and cooking oils. However I received a house this past month (a hacienda also) that was just terribly sooty and grimy and the cornstarch just wouldn't touch it. After a liberal coat of bleach and a drying period it was almost like new or at least very well preserved vintage.
Cleaning cardboard Christmas village houses with 
I hope you can see the difference in the white box and the very yellowed house. It is much more offensively dulled in person. This came in a lot of 3 other small houses from the 50's but this is the one I was after. It is a much smaller version of the two Santa window castles I already own.
Cleaning cardboard Christmas village houses with 
In this photo the top of the roofs and front and right side have had the bleach (in the can) applied. This brush is also used in cornstarch treatment of coconut as it is much more gentle than a toothbrush.
Cleaning cardboard Christmas village houses with 
As you can see this house is much less yellowed than previously. It is STILL somewhat yellowed but perhaps that may be due to the chemical base of the paint. In the late 1930's zinc oxide began to be used in house paints as the toxicity of lead oxides was well understood at the time. In fact the effects of lead poisoning among painters was so endemic that it was called "painters disease." The biggest problem with zinc oxide is that it yellowed pretty severely. This base was eventually replaced by titanium dioxide - the stuff of no cal. non dairy creamer!

I just brush on a thin coat much like you are painting. I used the little half inch paint brush but you could use an artists flat brush too. I just apply it and let it go. It will soak in a bit and then dry up. After drying the Clorox goes away completely and doesn't leave the distinctive odor behind unlike the long time in laundry. I think it is pretty safe on the sandy surfaces. I have tried it on some white coconut and it made it like new! Doesn't seem to have deteriorated since but time alone will tell if it significantly weakened it. So far no. ANY colored cellophane SHOULD be tested in a no-show place to see if any color changes occur. I accidentally dribbled so on the red cellophane coconut on a roof and it turned it a VERY dark red - almost maroon. So it chemically altered it and this seems to be a fairly permanent condition. So test first on any colored coconut. Some colors don't seem to be affected.

One of the most interesting aspects of this as the chlorine is fugitive in open air and the smell denotes the active ingredient of chlorine. Almost before it is dried this smell rapidly dissipates as well as the chemical action. I have not noticed any deterioration of the paint or structure beneath by using this method. Unlike laundry where it is soaked in the stuff for several minutes and REMAINS in the clothing until it is dried which can be as much as an hour or more. This is where the damage comes in as the chlorine will remain suspended in the wet clothes until dried. So the exposure is MUCH less." - Tom

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Copyright 2000-2012 Theodore H. Althof,Jr.Except where noted, the contents of this website and all it's pages and submissions therein contained are the intellectual property of Theodore H.Althof,Jr. All rights are reserved. (Background musical selections are,of course, excepted.)

This archive was set up at Ted's request in early 2012, and, except for critical updates and
announcements, will remain as Ted left it in October, 2012.
The archive is kept online with the help of volunteers from the following affiliated sites and resources:
- Christmas Memories and Collectibles -
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