Many things make the holidays magical, but few produce a smile as quickly as the wonderfully kitschy line of starry-eyed Santas, angels, elf girls, snow babies and other whimsical Christmas ware from Holt-Howard.
The brothers John and Robert Howard, along with college friend, Grant Holt, started Holt-Howard in 1949 with a family loan of $9,000 to import and sell decorative objects from Japan. Post World War II, Japan had the reputation of producing low-cost, low-quality products, But Holt Howard discovered that Japan had top-quality ceramic manufacturers if you were willing pay a little more for the product.
Although well known for a slew of functional yet fun kitchen and tabletop products, the first wares Holt-Howard introduced were reimagined ceramic Christmas items. There were North Pole Jet Stream Santa Ashtrays, Candy Cane Peppermint Angel Candleholders Vases, Merry Whisker Beverage Sets, Angel Candleholders, Winking Santa Punch Bowl Sets and much more.
“My favorite Holt-Howard collectible is the company’s Ermine Angels,” says noted Holt-Howard expert, Walter Dworkin, whose book, Price Guide to Holt-Howard Collectibles, is considered the leading reference to all things Holt-Howard. “This series captures a wonderful walk down memory lane of Christmas past. These angels with their blushing rosy cheeks, Spaghetti Art trim (Ermine) and Sponge Gold detailings capture the true essence and beauty of the 1950s.
“Spaghetti Art and Sponge Gold detailings were very prevalent in the late 1950s through early 1960s, and then totally vanished from the Japan manufacturing processes forever,” Dworkin says. “This series of Ermine Angels included salt & pepper shakers, candle holders with snowflake sliders, a pair of rectangular planters and a very rare angel star planter.”
The company’s Christmas décor, like the candle-powered spinning chimes dubbed “Angel-abra,” quickly took off. Most of the company’s business was done through specialty gift shops, department stores and directly through its catalogs.
One unexpected outcome of the line was the eventual worldwide acceptance of the coffee mug. Prior to the mid-1950s, drinking coffee or tea from anything but a cup and saucer was unheard of in Canadian and European markets, and to a lesser degree in the U.S., John Howard said in Dworkin’s book.
“We were often told we couldn’t be serious if we thought the traditional serving way would change,” John Howard said. “Within five years, consumer convenience clearly won out over tradition, particularly in North America, as mugs became a permanent part of everyday living. Ultimately, Europe was won over to the convenience and functionality of coffee mugs.”
On the heels of their holiday success, Holt-Howard quickly offered a variety of other table accessories, such as condiment jars, decanters, spoon holders and salt shakers – all of them possessing cartoon-like joy that reflected the energy of the emerging Baby Boomer Age. Despite the wonders that followed, however, the original Christmas offerings retain a special place in collectors’ hearts.
“Holt-Howard resonates with collectors and holiday gift givers even 60 years after they were introduced for many reasons,” Dworkin says. Quality, creativity and design, all play a significant part in their continued popularity, but there’s more, Dworkin said.
“Christmas is all about nostalgia. We think back to our childhood and the joy we experienced,” Dworkin says. “Holt-Howard represents that for many people, including myself.”