This story begins with a curious child.
Hugo McGuinness was always intrigued by the plaque on the outside of the graveyard, inscribed with the numbers “5618”.
“As a kid, stuck in a traffic jam, I was told the stone carver was drunk and by the time they’d realised he’d made a mistake the plaque was up and they couldn’t afford to change it,” says the middle-aged McGuinness.
The plaque in question sits at the front of the mortuary chapel on Fairview Strand. Placed there in 1857 it reads “5618”, following the Hebrew calendar.
Beyond the plaque, at the chapel’s rear, lie the remains of over 200 Jewish Dubliners – and among them is the grave of Samuel Stavenhagen who, McGuinness learnt, changed the way Dubliners celebrate Christmas.
By day, Fairview native McGuinness works for Dublin City Council, but in his spare time he occupies himself with local history.
When he rifled through burial records for the graveyard he had wondered at in his childhood, McGuinness noticed that a number of people buried there had run successful businesses in Dublin throughout the Great Famine, from 1845 to 1852, a period that saw the decimation of Ireland’s population.
“That’s kind of what fascinated me about Stavenhagen,” says McGuinness. “Because he goes into business in 1845.”
Samuel Stavenhagen was born in 1809 in the town of Alt-Strelitz, Mecklenburg in Northern Germany. It’s unclear exactly how he ended up in Dublin, but several of his relatives of the same generation moved all over the world, says Diane Stavenhagen Kadletz, who lives in the United States and has researched her family tree.
Perhaps, it’s because the oldest son took over the family business and it was hard for others to get permission from the local government to open their own.
“But that is just a guess,” says Stavenhagen Kadletz, who is Samuel’s first-cousin, five times removed.
His father was Gerson Isaac Stavenhagen. His mother was Reisel. Samuel had a half-brother and two younger sisters, she says.
Supposedly, the origins of the family name lie in a law that was passed in the early 1800s that meant minority populations had to take a formal surname, rather than using their father’s first name as their last.
Gerson, Samuel’s father refused to choose a name, the story goes. “So the authorities made him use Stavenhagen after the town where the family had lived earlier,” she said.
“At that time the Stavenhagen family was involved in the cloth business, the manufacture and sale of wool cloth,” she says.
They were part of a fairly large Jewish community in Alt-Strelitz who in general “were tolerated in the community,” said Stavenhagen Kadletz. “But they had to obtain permission to engage in business and they paid higher taxes.”
As Samuel’s family spread throughout the world, many started businesses. In England, they dealt with wool. In France, they dealt with lace.
“Later generations came to the United States, one ran a pawn shop in New York,” she says. Another owned several grocery stores and a bakery in Texas.
“It does seem that the family was quite entrepreneurial,” she says – including Samuel Stavenhagen.
The first record of his presence in Dublin comes from Thom’s Almanac of 1845, where he is listed as a tobacconist. There is a second mention in June 1849, when he marries Helena Meyer; their address at this time is listed as 67 Grafton Street. By then, he had left the tobacco business behind and opened up a toy shop.
There were numerous toy shops in Dublin in the mid-19th-century, according to Vanessa Rutherford of University College Cork in Reinventing Childhood Nostalgia: Books, Toys and Contemporary Media Culture.
There were, among others, Blum Joseph Brothers of 25 Nassau Street, and Johnson of 37 Sackville Street Lower – and Stavenhagen of 67 Grafton Street.
McGuinness has a theory that the Blum brothers persuaded Stavenhagen to open his toy shop.
Proprietors of their own Parisian bazaar and importers of what were then termed “fancy goods”, the Blums were business associates and creditors to Stavenhagen.
They later bailed him out of the debts that he had racked up from a failed pre-toy shop foray into hosiery, according to an 1856 announcement in Saunders Newsletter.
But it was a noteworthy trial in 1853 that brought Stavenhagen’s name to a wide Dublin audience.
It was the spring of 1853 when would-be thieves Michael Duff and John Connolly conspired to rob the wage package from William Dargan’s railway company. But they needed disguises.
What better place to buy masks than at Samuel Stavenhagen’s toy shop at 67 Grafton Street? Weeks before the attempted robbery, Duff travelled to Stavenhagen’s shop with Thomas Coogan, a night watchman who filled Duff in on the details of the railway’s wage deliveries.
Coogan was their man on the inside. But he couldn’t be trusted. He had already revealed Duff’s plan to a Sergeant Kavanagh at Dublin Castle.
An entry in the Freeman’s Journal from 9 May 1853, under the headline “CONSPIRACY TO MURDER AND ROB MR. DARGAN’S PAY CLERK”, includes an account of what happened.
Duff and Connolly planned to steal a box from Boyd containing more than £700, according to the trial transcript.
Sergeant Kavanagh had found the pistol and the masks that both men planned to use during the robbery under Duff’s bed at his house in Kingstown, now Dún Laoghaire.
Three witnesses were called to bolster the evidence against Duff and Connolly: Stavenhagen’s junior apprentice, his senior assistant, and Samuel Stavenhagen himself.
Fifteen-year-old Robert Dornan, employed by Stavenhagen at 67 Grafton Street, “identified the prisoner [Duff] as one of two men who purchased two masks in his master’s shop about three weeks ago,” reported the Freeman’s Journal.
Martin Buchad, who was the “shopman” to Samuel Stavenhagen, corroborated Dornan’s testimony. Duff and Connolly were convicted.
And the trial marked a new beginning of sorts for Stavenhagen. “You can’t buy this kind of publicity,” says McGuinness.
Soon after, Stavenhagen travelled to the Continent where, in a small German town, a new kind of Christmas decoration was taking off.
The Rise of Decorations
Surrounded in winter by snow-tipped pines, the small town of Lauscha in central Germany is considered the birthplace of Christmas baubles.
Near the Thuringian forest, Lauscha-based glassblower Hans Greiner began making glass there in the 1590s. By the mid-19th-century his family had moved into glass Christmas ornaments.
It’s a while, though, before these ornaments are put on the map, due, in no small part, to Queen Victoria and her German husband Albert.
In fact, it was the front-page image of the Illustrated London News in December 1848, which showed the royal family gathered around their Christmas tree, that some historians argue popularised modern-day traditions.
At the same time, though, Ireland’s population was in decline. Between 1841 and 1851 the population dropped by more than 1,400,000, according to census figures. Hundreds of thousands emigrated to escape the Famine.
Meanwhile, Stavenhagen married Helena Meyer on 24 June 1849 just off Capel Street at Mary’s Abbey, which had been deconsecrated as a Presbyterian church in 1835. He opened his Grafton Street toy shop soon after.
It’s around this period that German chemist Justus von Liebig developed a new way to make Christmas decorations.
One that swirled silver nitrate into glass ornaments once they cooled, according to Ace Collins in Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas.
Von Liebig’s method gave these Christmas ornaments a bright finish. “When seen in the proper light,” says Collins, they “even appeared to glow”.
The ornaments were then hand-painted and topped with a metal cap through which a string is looped, and hung on a Christmas tree.
In the early 1850s, Samuel Stavenhagen travelled from Dublin to Germany where he saw these novel ornaments.
“All these Christmas decorations, all these new ones,” says McGuinness, his eyes lighting up. “He’s never seen anything like it.”
S. Stavenhagen respectfully announces that he has just received, and ready for inspection, a large assortment of the newest French and German Fancy Goods.
He kindly solicits a visit to his large and newly-erected Show Room, where Ladies and Gentlemen will have a better opportunity of inspecting his unrivalled Stock in all its useful and amusing branches.
He also begs to draw attention to his collection of articles suitable for the decoration of Christmas Trees, selected by himself on the Continent, and will be sold at incredibly low prices.
Printed in Saunders Newsletter on Friday 22 December 1854, this advertisement is the first of many that Stavenhagen places in the run-up to Christmas each year.
By 1862, he has moved his toy shop to 15 Capel Street, where he and Helena live above the premises.
Another advertisement from Saturday 21 December 1867 reads:
S. Stavenhagen begs to call the attention of the Public to his New Stock of German and French toys, Games and a great variety of Fancy Articles, particularly adapted for Christmas Presents; also a Large Assortment of Toys for the decoration of Christmas Trees, at One Penny each.
For 30 years, Stavenhagen travelled back and forth to the Continent, hand-picking his Christmas ornaments to sell in his toy shop.
He never puts the price up, says McGuinness.“I think it was his way of saying thanks tha to customers. It fascinates me. He never, ever puts the price up. So everyone can afford Christmas decorations.”
By the time of his last known advertisement on Thursday 21 December 1882, Stavenhagen was 73 years old.
Seven years later, on 23 October, he died. Four months later, on 25 February, Helena joined him.
Buried together in a small plot in Ballybough Jewish Cemetery, the couple’s resting place has been left largely unattended since the graveyard’s last burial in 1958.
On a recent Wednesday, there was morning dew on the blades of grass that sprouted from the tombstones.
An abandoned ceramic swan, caked in mud, was lying next to dozens of tablets that mark the graves of some of Dublin’s Jewish community. At the centre of the cemetery stands an ash tree, bare yet overgrown.
It has been almost 300 years since the first burial here, and the graveyard is in need of repair.
Stavenhagen’s headstone is near the right-hand corner of the graveyard.
It is faded, its base overgrown with mallow weeds and dead leaves.
Dublin City Council, which recently took it in charge from the Dublin Jewish Board of Guardians, has tentative plans. Staff are going to do a conservation study and programme, said a spokesperson for the council.
“Consultation with the City Archaeologist will also take place to inform how we manage the burial ground and interpret it for the community and other visitors,” they said.
Perhaps, that might include a mention of Stavenhagen and his legacy. Once Stavenhagen had started to sell these new German Christmas ornaments to Dubliners, others soon followed suit.
As the years rolled on, other advertisements appeared alongside Stavenhagen’s, promoting similar imported Christmas decorations.
“Within four or five years other people realise where he’s getting them from,” says McGuinness. “But because he never put up his prices I think people kept coming to him.”