“Attrappen” for amusement

The word “Attrappe” (in old catalogues also spelled 'Atrappe' or 'Attrape') is derived from the French 'attrape'[i] , which could be translated as 'joke article'. However, the term 'joke article' only describes part of the function of a Attrappe. In 19th and early 20th century Germany, they were also very popular as gifts or souvenirs. The range of what was considered an “Attrappe” at that time was very broad. A magazine article from 1873 makes this clear:

"The manufacturers of luxury goods compete with each other in constantly bringing things onto the market which amaze, combinations which make one exclaim: how could a sensible person come up with this idea! If the "novelty" has this effect, then the manufacturer can congratulate himself, then it will become fashionable - for a short time, of course, that is the nature of fashion. Consequently, the Attrappe has become so important in this hustle and bustle. A boot as a drinking utensil, a straw hat as a butter dish, both objects as true to nature as possible, so that the thing becomes only quite appetising, a jockey cap as a cigar holder, shirt collars and cuffs as writing utensils and a hundred kinds of similar nonsense belong to the classic products of modern industry; to mask a material in such a way that it can be mistaken for a completely different one, glass for porcelain, porcelain for wood and so on, to make a weaving or embroidery so elaborate that from a distance it is mistaken for a bad lithograph, that is considered by countless industrialists to be the greatest triumph."[ii]

The Attrappen, as we have just read, came in all shapes and sizes. The important thing was, that they were lifelike replicas of everyday objects. Attrappen could be bought filled or empty, in chocolate shops, confectioners, candy shops, fancy goods shops, speciality shops for joke articles or at markets.

The producers were spread all over the German Empire. Around Frankfurt, for example, nuts of various sizes were stamped out of cardboard, punched out and gilded. [iii] Sonneberg in Thuringia and the surrounding area was probably the most important centre for Christmas themed Attrappen. Here, Father Christmases, Belsnickels and Krampuses were produced in various shapes and sizes as Attrappen for the national and international market. The same manufacturers also produced decorative Easter bunnies as Attrappen for Easter.

Illustration from the `Illustrierte Zeitung´ of 1890

Attrappen were used as souvenirs, „Juxgeschenke“[iv] , table decorations, joke articles, at balls, social events, or other celebrations. They were also used in small lotteries, which were popular at social events in those days. The original Attrappen found many buyers in Germany as well as abroad.

Some manufacturers succeeded in making their Attrappen look so lifelike that even the authorities were deceived. In Austria, a man was arrested by the police in 1883 because he was holding an irritatingly real imitation of a dynamite-stick. Unlike the original, his stick of dynamite did not contain explosives. It did however contain marzipan.[v] One manufacturer also offered a lifelike black rat whose legs could move with the help of a cogwheel mechanism. Its inner life was also made of sweets.[vi]

The rats can be opened and filled at the bottom

At that time, people liked to use lifelike animals made of papier-mâché as table decorations for dinner parties. Preferred were fish and lobster Attrappen to deceive the guests. They were to be arranged on a platter like real food and passed around accompanied by verses from the hosts.

The animals can be opened up and filled.

There was a short description of this in the magazine “Fürs Haus” with the title "Joking at a dinner":

"After the first dish has been passed around and the plates removed, a fish is brought in (a paper-mâché Attrappe), but it is garnished quite like a real fish and must look as natural as possible. The host rings the glass and speaks [...]."[vii]

This was followed by funny verses created by the hosts themselves. As the climax of the joke, the dummy was opened, and the small gifts hidden inside were distributed. Unusual today, such 'poetic jokes' were quite common at that time.

Sample advertisement from the years 1911-1912.

In addition to the somewhat larger ones, there were also smaller animal Attrappen that served as table decorations or that could be filled with gifts or small scrolls.

Small Attrappen for rolled-up texts and not, as often assumed, for sweets

Since most of the Attrappen could be filled with small gifts, chocolate, or sweets in general, the similarity to the bonbonniere cannot be overlooked. Especiall in the group of miniature Attrappen and bonbonnieres, the transitions are fluid. For one observer it is a Attrappe, for another a bonbonniere.

In collectors' circles, Attrappen are nowadays usually referred to as 'candy container'. By doing so the original meaning of the Attrappe was replaced.

Here are a few examples of different dummies that could be bought and filled as desired.

[i] The French verb 'attraper' means to trap or catch. The underlying noun is 'trappe', which can be translated as trap, among other things. An Attrappe was therefore a trap that could be used to trick someone.

[ii] Illustrierte Zeitung (Leipzig), LXI. Bd., Nr. 1568 (19th of July 1873), p. 47.

[iii] In the Rhine-Main area, Christmas tree decorations were also made from cotton wool, tinsel, glass balls and Christmas treetops. Arndt, Paul: Kurze Beschreibung der Heimarbeit im Rhein-Mainischen Wirtschaftsgebiete (Heimarbeit-Ausstellung zu Frankfurt a. M.), Frankfurt 1908, p. 147.

[iv] As described in an advertisement of the Paul Mühlbacher company from Klagenfurt, in: Klagenfurter Zeitung, Jg. 1865, No. 290 (20th of December).

[v] Österreichische Eisenbahn-Zeitung, VI. Jg. (1883), No. 3 (21st of January), p. 34.

[vi] An der schönen blauen Donau, 5. Jg. (1890), issue 10, p. 236.

[vii] Marie zu Hannover: Scherz bei einem Abendessen; in: Fürs Haus. Praktisches Wochenblatt für alle Hausfrauen, 12 Jg. (1893/94), Nr. 587 (1st of Januar 1894), p. 108.