Department 56* began with the simple idea for a lighted village, which was sparked when a group of friends set off for a Christmastime dinner at a country inn. As the group came around a bend, the small town of Stillwater, Minnesota stood before them, lighted and decorated for the holidays amid newly fallen snow. Over dinner, the friends recounted some of their happiest holiday memories, and later wished to recapture the feeling of encountering the small, lighted town. Thus, the Original Snow Village was born.
The story sounds almost too charming to be true, but it really did happen that way, according to Melinda Seegers, Manager of Consumer Services for Department 56. Seegers is known in the company and on her business cards as “Miss Lit Town” and has worked at Department 56 for twenty-three years. She describes Stillwater, MN, the inspiration for Snow Village, as “just a real charming, picturesque river town.”
The first six hand-painted ceramic Snow Village buildings were sold in 1976 at Bachman's, a Minneapolis florist. Each department at Bachman’s was assigned a number, and the wholesale gift imports division was known as Department 56. Out of that simple numbering system grew a company that would ultimately split off to form a thriving business of its own.
In 1979, the original six Snow Village buildings were retired to make way for twelve new buildings, as well as the first accessories. Department 56 expanded its village offerings in 1984 with the release the smaller-scaled porcelain Heritage Village Collection. The first introduction of that series was Dickens’ Village, a collection of seven shops and a church, all evoking holiday Victorian England.
Two years later, Department 56's Heritage Village Collection grew again with the introduction of the New England Village Series and the Alpine Village Series. Soon after that, Christmas in the City and Little Town of Bethlehem joined the Heritage Village family.
Snowbabies figurines were introduced in 1986, designed by artist Kristi Jensen Pierro. These small bisque sculptures featured cherubic faces and playful childhood scenes. A significant departure from the lighted villages of Department 56’s beginnings, Snowbabies soon developed their own devoted collector following.
By 1988, the company has expanded to $56 million in sales and moved into a new distribution center. In 1991, they opened a new corporate headquarters in Eden Prairie, MN. The following year, the company was acquired by New York investment firm Forstmann Little and, in 1992, completed an initial public offering and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Over the next decade, Department 56 introduced The Disney Parks Village Series, Snowbunnies, the year-round series Seasons Bay, and Elf Land. The company’s first retail store was opened at the Mall of America in 1999. Another retail location was added in Las Vegas the following year.
In 2009, Department 56 was acquired by ENESCO, a giftware company headquartered in Itasca, Illinois. Two years later, Department 56 moved its creative team to a facility in Eden Prairie, MN, where company artists continue to design new products.
While Department 56 created its first Web site in 1996, the company did not sell products online until recently. Today, online sales are very important to the company, according to Seegers, because many independent stores previously carrying Department 56 products have gone out of business.
New village pieces are introduced twice a year; the main introduction is in December, with those pieces available for sale the following summer. A smaller, mid-year introduction is made in May, with those items generally available for sale by the holiday season. In early November of each year, Department 56 retires a certain number of items as well. The mold for each retired piece is then broken, limiting the number of each item available to collectors.(See complete history list on the company website)
Department 56 hosts events each year, which are attended by collectors and Department 56 representatives. In 2011, these events were held for the villages, Snowbabies, and Possible Dreams. Artists from Department 56 are available to sign new purchases at such events. While some collections of Department 56 have been permanently retired, many of its earliest series, as well as some recent additions, continue production today.
*The company was originally a division of a florist; every department had a numerical name and theirs was Dept. 56.
About the author:
Tiffany Reevior is a freelance writer with hundreds of news and feature articles published online and in print. She has been a collector of the Original Snow Village since 1991, and can be reached at tiffanyreevior.com