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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

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Christmas Time in Santa Heim

Years ago while I was a freshman at the University at Buffalo, a few of my friends had a wee bit too much to drink one night and decided to go in search of a Christmas tree for our dorm suite. I awoke the next morning to find what could only be described as a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Branches were few and far between, while their tree decorating was exactly what you would expect from a bunch of drunk teenage males. They used toilet paper as a substitute for garland, Playboy pictures hung from the branches, and empty beer cans were used as ornaments. I couldn’t help but laugh every time that I walked by it.

Today my wife and I own enough ornaments to decorate half-a-dozen Christmas trees, yet we only have one. My guess is that we are not alone in that respect, yet historically it was not always that way.

Prior to the late 1800’s, most Christmas trees in the United States were decorated with fruits, nuts, and paper ornaments. The introduction of glass ornaments to tree decorating can be traced back to the early 1800’s when glassblowers in Lauscha, Germany developed reflective panoramic balls intended for window and garden display. By the mid-1800’s, they had created smaller versions designed for use on Christmas trees. These early “kugels” were typically made in the shape of grapes, acorns, and mushrooms and were silvered on the inside with lead or zinc.  These evolved into the shiny, thin glass ornaments that we are so familiar with today.

Yet, these new glass ornaments were slow to catch on. In 1880, a man named Frank Winfield Woolworth – better known to the world as F.W. Woolworth – approached a Philadelphia importer in search of cheap Christmas toys for his newly started business. Instead, the importer showed Woolworth a bunch of colored glass Christmas ornaments that were unlike anything he had ever seen before.  Woolworth told the importer that he wasn’t interested because he was certain that they wouldn’t sell. Not only would no one know what they were, but he was concerned about breakage while being shipped to his store.

The importer made Woolworth a deal that he couldn’t refuse. Not only could Woolworth mark these up high enough to make a handsome profit, he guaranteed that if Woolworth didn’t sell $25 worth, he could get a full refund.  What did he have to lose? Woolworth agreed.

Two days after first placing these ornaments on display in his store, Woolworth had sold his initial inventory out. For the following Christmas, Woolworth ordered a large number of the glass ornaments, but, once again, he sold out. Once Woolworth’s business had grown large enough, he was able to knock out the middleman and import the ornaments directly from Germany. It’s hard to believe that Woolworth’s incredible fortune was largely due to that initial success with glass Christmas ornaments.

Customers shopping at a Woolworth's store in Washington, DC for Christmas gifts in December, 1941.
Customers shopping at a Woolworth’s store in Washington, DC for Christmas gifts in December, 1941. (Image from the Library of Congress.)

Prior to 1939, an estimated 50- to 80-million ornaments were imported annually to the United States.  The bulk of these were made in Germany and a large percentage of them were sold by Woolworths and similar stores. Then the Second World War broke out and the supply of German Christmas ornaments came to an abrupt halt. It was the perfect opportunity for a new American industry.

Perhaps the man who most benefited from this need for domestically manufactured Christmas ornaments Harry Harrison Heim. Born in Baltimore on March 14, 1883, he made his way west prior to World War I to work as a display manager for the Marston department store in San Diego. The Great Depression forced the closure of a dress shop that he operated there and, in 1932, he relocated back to Baltimore so that a family member could receive medical treatment at Johns Hopkins.  

World War I draft registration card for Harry Harrison Heim showing that he woked for the Marston department store in San Diego, California.
World War I draft registration card for Harry Harrison Heim showing that he woked for the Marston department store in San Diego, California.

Harry, along with his son Harry, Jr., scraped by doing whatever kind of store and nightclub decorating work they could find. Times were certainly tough.  Then, while working on a Christmas decorating job, he made the serendipitous observation that would forever change his life. It was a simple Christmas decoration that had been made from three brightly colored cellophane straws.  He went home and used that inspiration to create a Japanese-themed Christmas ornament, which proved to be a tremendous success. Then sales came to an abrupt halt in 1938 with the rise of anti-Japanese sentiment.

His company, Santa Novelties, Inc., was on the verge of going under, so Heim looked elsewhere to supplement his sales. He began to focus on the manufacture of hand-blown glass balls. Initial attempts to create the glass ornaments were not successful – in fact, Harry, Jr. was nearly blinded in one factory accident – but soon they were able to get it right.

World War II draft card for Harry Heim.
World War II draft card for Harry Heim. Note that he lists his place of employment as Santa Novelties, Inc at 3900 Lombard Street in Baltimore.

Heim lated stated, “I knew nothing about it. I hired a glass blower and he didn’t know anything either. But we worked at it, and in six months offered our first balls. They were rotten.” He continued, “But we got encouragement because we were on the right track and finally hit the secret.”

He claimed to have been down to his last $50 when a company that was a bit down on its luck when its supply of German-made Christmas decorations dried up came a-knockin’.  F.W. Woolworth placed a very large order for his newly designed Christmas balls and saved Santa Novelties from bankruptcy. The company grew exponentially from that point on.  

Ornaments at the Santa Novelties plant are silvered by squirting a strong solution of silver nitrate inside.
Ornaments at the Santa Novelties plant are silvered by squirting a strong solution of silver nitrate inside. Image from the December 1949 issue of Popular Science.

By 1944, his company was producing 12-million Christmas tree balls each year with 90% of its output going to Woolworth’s.  Heim was suddenly rolling in the dough, but was experiencing growing pains. Basically, his business had outgrown the antiquated factory that he operated in a former brewery at 3900 East Lombard Street in Baltimore. He was in need of a larger facility.

That’s when fate stepped in.

About twenty miles northeast of Washington, D.C., lies the small town of Savage, Maryland. For nearly 200 years, this quaint village was home to the Savage Manufacturing Company.  They produced cotton duck, which is basically a heavy-duty canvas. Nearly all of what the company produced was sold to other manufacturers to turn into a finished product, whether that be as sailcloth for ships, coverings for fire hoses, or canvas for conveyor belts. World War II had been an incredibly prosperous time for the company, but they were unable to operate at a profit once the war had ended. On September 5, 1947, it was announced that the Savage Manufacturing Company was to permanently shut down.

Image of the Savage Manufacturing plant.
Image of the Savage Manufacturing plant that appeared on page 29 of the Baltimore Evening Sun on December 22, 1947.

This was devastating news for the residents of Savage. Not only did more than 350 of its employees live in Savage, but the company literally owned the town. Half of the homes in the town were owned and operated by the mill.  The company provided the electricity, water, sewage, garbage collection, police and fire protection, and operated both the town’s grocery and dry goods store. Savage was the ultimate company town. Without the company, one wondered what would happen to the town.

This is where Harry Heim entered the picture. He was in need of a larger manufacturing facility and here was the perfect business opportunity. In December 1947, Heim purchased the entire town – that included nearly 500 acres of land, the old cotton duck mill, 175 homes ranging in age of between 15 and 150-years old, and everything else that came along with it. The purchase price was a cool $450,000 (approximately $4.6-million today).

Heim made immediate plans to rehabilitate the town. Not only did this include moving his ever-growing business into the old mill, but he planned to transform Savage to make it look like a quintessential 19th-century town. About sixty of the homes were sold to their occupants at below market prices, while the remainder were to be fitted with modern kitchens and bathrooms, which many still lacked.

Yet, Heim had even grander plans for Savage. With a bit of Walt Disney imagination, he planned to turn the entire town into a permanent Christmas town.  It would be the biggest and best Christmas-themed destination in the entire United States.

“In this tract I’ll build a big Christmas Castle right in the center, cutting down only what trees are necessary.” He added, “I’ll erect scenes depicting nursery rhymes with life-size figures. All around the trees will be trimmed and lighted.”

He had one year to make this all happen. “I’ll cut roads in and out so the people can drive right through and maybe they’ll even be a miniature railroad to carry the children. For about six weeks every year it will be Christmas there.” He continued, “Many of the quaint houses will be freshened up and furnished with Christmas decorations and gardens.”

A few of the homes owned by the Savage mill in 1947.
A few of the homes owned by the Savage mill in 1947. (Baltimore Evening Sun, December 22, 1947, page 29.)

Six months later all of the old machinery from the mill was gone. Harry, Jr. was in charge of setting up the new manufacturing facility as the firm’s tractor trailers hauled in equipment day-after-day. Three buses drove workers back and forth to Baltimore as construction workers rehabilitated the town. Tourists began to trickle through Savage just to see what was happening. There was a sense of resurgence in the air as this old mill town was brought back to life.

Of course, Savage is not a very good name for a Christmas town, so Harry Heim had a better idea. You’re probably thinking something like Santaland or Christmas Village or something along those lines. Nope.  He renamed it after himself: Santa Heim. Harry explained that it made perfect sense, since Heim means home in German. This would be Santa’s home away from home. For two weeks out of every year, Santa would spend his time away from the North Pole in Santa Heim.  Santa Heim, Maryland. No that’s not good enough. He changed it to Santa Heim, Merryland.

And then the big day came: Santa Heim officially opened to the public on Saturday, December 11, 1948. An estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people were in attendance when Maryland Governor William Preston Lane officially dedicated the town to Christmas.

It was quite the site to see. An estimated 28,000 colored lights twinkled along the streets as speakers all around town played Christmas carols. All of the homes were decorated for Christmas, while a 20-foot (6-meter) tall illuminated star shined from atop the Christmas Heim ornament factory.

Santa arrived by helicopter and then boarded his sleigh that was pulled by live reindeer. Three trains coined the “Santa Heim Special” brought visitors in from Baltimore and Washington, DC. A replica of the Tom Thumb, the first commercial American locomotive ever, pulled thousands of children around the town on a miniature train. A circus tent was fill with life-size animated animals, while reindeer pens were set up near the town’s Baldwin Memorial Hall.  Inside that building one could find the obligatory gift shop.

Image of the Santa Heim Special. Note the billboard for Santa Heim on the right.
Image of the Santa Heim Special. Note the billboard for Santa Heim on the right. Image appeared in the December 20, 1948 issue of the Wilmington Daily News-Journal on page 8.

The 100-year-old post office was decked out in a fresh coat of red-and-white paint. Outside stood 10-foot (3-meter) tall candy canes. Thousands of letters poured in for Santa Claus from all over the country.  Here is a sampling of what the children had to say:

A girl named Judy wrote: “Dear Santa: I think you are a nice man. Will you please come and see me soon and bring me a bride doll with a husband, and anything else you can spare? Thank you.”

A really odd one came from a boy named Joe who wanted “a two-wheeler –  also a bale of hay.”

Santa with children in front of the Santa Heim Express locomotive.
Santa with children in front of the Santa Heim Express locomotive. Image appeared in the December 12, 1948 publication of the Baltimore Sun on page 32.

Then there was a boy from Texas who requested a “pair of pants and a washing machine –  and maybe an electric iron.” I think mom may have been looking over his shoulder as he penned that letter.

Another boy wrote, “My dad is sick and my mother can’t leave to get my ‘presidents [sic].’  All I will get is from the school and the Scouts  and the neibors [sic]. Wish I could get more, but know you are busy.”

A girl named Aletha was a bit demanding when she told Santa to drop his bag of toys “this minute” and come running to help her do her homework. “I don’t want anything else.”

Lastly, a girl wrote, “This is the last letter you will resive [sic] from me if you do not leave me a doll carpet sweeper. This is final. I love you and why don’t you love me?”  With that kind of attitude I am hoping that no one ever got her that doll carpet sweeper.

Overall, the opening of Christmas Heim was a phenomenal success. Even before Santa Heim closed for the season, Harry Heim was making plans for the following year. He envisioned the construction of what he called a ‘Crazy Town’, complete with the crooked roofs that you see illustrated in nursery rhymes.

After that first season, things did not go smoothly for Santa Heim. In April, Harry Heim was indicted for tax evasion. Basically, while filing its 1947 taxes, Heim’s company Santa Novelties requested a refund on taxes paid in 1946. The problem was that no taxes were ever paid.  Even worse, while the State of Maryland was investigating, they determined that Heim himself had paid no taxes on his 1947 income of $31,200. In the end, the judge fined Heim $100 after he paid the back taxes with interest. It was concluded that Santa Novelties had grown so fast – from $61,000 in sales in 1943 to $1,659,000 in 1948 – that the payment of taxes had been overlooked in all of the confusion.

Next, when Santa Heim reopened for the 1949 season, thousands of people showed up on that first Sunday to find the place closed by authorities. Santa Heim was found to be in violation of the county’s 1723 Blue Law preventing shows on Sundays. Oddly, the law had been modified at one point to allow movie theaters to operate on Sunday, but most other forms of entertainment were not permitted.

Shutting Santa down is not a good thing to do and the public clearly was not happy. Here are two letters to the editor that appeared in the Baltimore Evening Sun:

The first was penned by James Woods of Baltimore – “ I just read the article ‘Santa’s Blue Laws Thwart Santa.’  Things certainly are in a fine mess. I guess you’re supposed to be ignorant enough to think the movies, bars, sports centers and the Colts and Orioles are necessary work.  Isn’t it just a little more important, especially at this time of the year, that our children have a place like Santa Heim in which to enjoy themselves? I think it’s time for us to see what the political angle is on the Maryland blue laws. The blue laws should be enforced in full or written off the books.”

Next up is a letter written by Gladys Stewart of Glen Burnie –  “These children believe in an old tradition – Santa Claus. They are eager in their youth to learn about this old gentleman with the white whiskers, red nose and jolly face. We can’t deny them their belief. Couldn’t we overlook this law –  just for the Christmas season?”

This Sunday operation ban didn’t last long. On December 8, 1949, the State attorney for Howard county,  Daniel M. Murray, Jr., ruled that Santa Heim could reopen on Sundays as long as all the proceeds were donated to charity. Assuming that most of Santa Heim’s business was done on weekends, this had to have made a huge dent in its overall profitability.

One-year later, December 8, 1950, proved to be another big setback for Santa Heim. The fire marshal shut down its Christmas Carnival – the one with all of the animals and animatronics – after it was determined that one of the tents was a fire hazard. 70% of the material that the tent was made of was considered to be highly flammable, while dangerous wiring was exposed throughout the exhibit.  They quickly resolved this by covering the walls with a fireproof lining and removing the dangerous wiring and the tent was allowed to reopen two days later.

Advertisement for Santa Heim from 1950.
Advertisement for Santa Heim that appeared on page 46 of the Baltimore Evening Sun on December 1, 1950.

Santa Heim limped through that third season, but it was never to reopen.  Harry Heim had overextended himself and the checks began to bounce. The war was over and the retailers went elsewhere to get cheaper stock for their stores. Soon Harry’s pockets were empty and both Santa Heim and his Santa Novelties business were gone.

The factory closed on March 27, 1951. Everything in the town was sold off including all of the homes, the machinery used to make the ornaments, and the manufacturing plant itself. Today the factory is the home to the historic Savage Mill complex of shops and eateries.

The loss of Santa Heim and his business must have come as quite a blow to the man who had the honor of decorating the Christmas tree on the White House lawn in 1949.  Harry Heim passed away on February 1, 1953 at the age of 69. The papers said that he died of a heart attack, but one can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t from a broken heart.  He had tried so hard to bring the joy of Christmas to so many children.

Useless? Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.