The History of German Incense Smokers

by Gregory Burton

Have you ever wondered who came up with the idea of the German Smoker or why it’s been a popular German gift for centuries? Find out more about this traditional handmade wooden toy that has been a popular family tradition for generations.

How Do German Smokers Work?

If you’re unfamiliar with how these burners work, don’t worry. They’re easy to set up and enjoy. Meticulously carved from a single piece of high-quality wood and handcrafted with care, they are solid and hardy ornaments. In fact, a German smoker typically only comprises of two pieces. The first is the base, into which an incense cone can be placed. Once lit, the second piece – the lid – is placed over top. This lid is hollowed so that, depending on the shape of the carved smoker figure, a unique dissipation effect will occur when the smoke rises through. For example, a German smoker made to resemble a house would almost certainly force smoke through the chimney. For figures depicting the average working man – an ore miner or sea captain, for instance – they may be designed so the smoke exits through the mouth. This is where the term “smoking man” is derived from when referring to these ornaments. The current, most common type of German smoker is of the two-piece variety, but we’ll delve into how the ornament’s physical design and functionality has changed a little further down.

The Use of Incense

German Smoker is much more than a simple toy that sits on your mantle during Christmas time. It’s also an incense burner that is used to symbolize the gift of incense brought to Jesus by the Three Wise Men. For centuries, incense has been seen as a treasured commodity and used for trade and as a way to honor kings. Incense was also believed to have medicinal and healing properties and used to ward off evil spirits. Frankincense and myrrh, which was presented to Jesus as a gift of honor from the Three Wise Men, were known to have antiseptic and inflammatory properties and were considered an effective remedy for many common ailments. Today, these gifts are still celebrated in Germany during the twelve days of Christmas festivities. On the last day, many people light incense and place them in their German Smokers to celebrate the gifts of The Wise Men and to mark the end of the Christmas season.

A Brief German Smokers History Lesson

The earliest German Smokers were made from dough and paper mache. Then in the late 1600s, the smokers were carved from one single piece of wood and made into tiny figurines that resemble typical German villagers. Even during the Swedish invasion in the 1600s, the tradition was never lost. Those who remained in the area turned their focus to making the German Smokers, along with a number of other popular German handmade toys and ornaments. Many of the best-known carving companies in the Erzgebirge area still make smokers today and this area is still known as the premier toy and collectible region of Europe.

Progression of the Smokers

Do you know what type of German Smoker your family has? The first handmade wood pieces had a distinct area for incense to be placed on a tray next to the figurine. Later designs placed the incense directly inside the figurine by way of a small incense cone. In the late 1700s, the German smokers were updated to use two pieces of wood to create one body, with the cone placed inside to pull the smoke through the mouth of the figurine, much like seen today. Even to this day, the figurine has always been carved as a traditional German working man – miner, shepherd, farmer, carpenter, each with its own unique accents and colours.

Looking for a large range of German Smokers to hand out as gifts or to keep for yourself? Come see us at Frankenmuth Clock & German Gift Co. or try our online store today to find a great range of traditional German toys and ornaments.