Very Ornamental

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The following is a somewhat long, but extremely interesting, article on the origin of the Christmas tree ornament.  It’s worth the read.  This information was gleaned from the pages of the OrnamentShop.com…a wonderful site for anyone who collects!

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“The earliest in the early 1800’s were fruit (particularly apples) and nuts. These, along with the evergreen trees themselves, represented the certainty that life would return in the spring.

Other fruits began to be added, along with paper streamers and bits of shiny metal foil. Whether a tree was lighted or not, the idea of reflecting the light in the room where the tree stood grew in popularity.

Another concept, too, began to take hold with the German families in whose homes the first “popular” trees resided. Food, often gingerbread or other hard cookies, would be baked in the shape of fruits, stars, hearts, angels and – yes – bells.

As the idea of decorated Christmas trees spread, various countries added their own variations. Americans, for instance, would string long strands of cranberries or popcorn to circle their trees. Small gifts began to be used to decorate the tree, sometimes contained in little intricately woven baskets, sometimes nestled in the crook of a bough, sometimes just hanging by a thread or piece of yarn. In the UK, creative ornaments of lace, paper or other materials showed the variety of interests and talents of their makers. Small “scraps” cut out of newspaper or magazine illustrations also found their way to the family’s tree and after a few years it became harder and harder to actually see the tree beneath the ornaments.

…In the latter part of the Nineteenth century various German entrepreneurs began to make ornaments that were mass produced and sold strictly as Christmas ornaments.

The area around Lauscha, long known for its glass making, was the hub of the glass ornament trade in Germany. Firms which had been making glass barometers, canes, ointment bottles, goblets, bulls-eye glass window panes, eyes for stuffed animals and brilliantly colored marbles discovered that they could diversify into making molded glass ornaments. Initially replicating fruits, nuts and other food items, they soon branched out and began to manufacture hearts, stars and other shapes that had been created out of cookies but now had the added dimension of a wide color palette enhanced by the luminosity of the glass itself.

Soon the glass blowers of Lauscha were creating molds of children, saints, famous people, animals and other forms – and discovering that there was no apparent end to the market for this new type of Christmas ornament. Nearly everyone in the town was involved in some way in the creation of Christmas ornaments with whole families working either in a factory or in a home-based foundry.

One of the first American mass merchandisers, F.W.Woolworth, began importing German glass ornaments into this country in the 1880s and by 1890, according to one source; he was selling $25 million worth of them. Need we remind you that the name of his stores was Woolworth’s Five and Dime Stores? That’s a lot of ornaments. We’ll find Mr.Woolworth’s name appearing again a few decades later.

We’ve mentioned before about how legends play an important role in the way we celebrate Christmas today…For generations people have been hiding a glass ornament – most likely from Lauscha – in the shape of a green pickle (gherkin or dill not specified). The rationale for the pickle is that German parents started doing it to reward the most observant child in the family. The first one to spot the pickle got an extra present from St. Nicholas on Christmas morning.

It’s a lovely story. Except for some small details: St. Nicholas traditionally comes to visit German children on the Fifth or Sixth of December, German children traditionally open their presents on Christmas Eve, and most Germans had never heard of the pickle ornament.

According to a recent highly reputable online review, the story gaining currency these days involves a Bavarian who came to America and fought in the Civil War. Captured by the Confederates and confined to the notorious Andersonville prison, the Bavarian, John Lower (Hans Lauer, perhaps), starving and near death, convinced a jailer to get him a pickle to eat. Buoyed both mentally and physically by eating the pickle, Lower survived and began his own tradition of hiding a small glass pickle ornament in the family Christmas tree. Its finder on Christmas morning would benefit from a year of good luck.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the main source of pickle ornaments was Lauscha. It does make a good story in either case.

Not far from Lauscha is the German city of Dresden. As their fellow craftsmen in Lauscha were blowing glass, artisans in Dresden were making ornaments out of pressed and embossed paper. Often highlighted with bright, even garish, colors, these ornaments were not just Christmas-themed but included fish, birds and other animals that, while consistent with Christmas ornament traditions, were also suitable for other occasions such as birthday parties.

Other ornaments from the late-Nineteenth, early-Twentieth century were made of pressed tin (much like many of the mechanical toys coming out of Germany at the time and those of Louis Marx later in America) with brightly colored lithographed surfaces. This was the time, too, when the thin foil strips we know as “icicles” or tinsel made their appearance. To their German creators they were known as “angels’ hair”.

During the nearly seventy years of her reign, Queen Victoria presided over a resurgence of the Christmas celebration. The illustration of her family around their Christmas tree that appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book in December, 1860, inspired Americans as well as their British cousins to follow her example with a decorated tree of their own. Many customs of Christmastime past had faded during the early part of the Nineteenth century, but her adoption of the season (if not the actual day of present-giving – she continued to follow an older tradition of giving gifts on January One) encouraged the rediscovery of Christmas carols, charitable giving at the season, and, of course, hearty meals of roast beef, goose or turkey followed by plum pudding.

Many of the ornaments decorating the trees of Victorian households were of the handmade craft variety and instructions for their construction were included in popular magazines. One example includes an early light bulb, encased in a tatted net, with an observer’s woven basket suspended from the bottom: a perfect hot-air balloon.

The ornaments that were commercially available tended to be a bit on the gaudy, well, colorful, and side. They might include brightly illustrated figures of cute angels, cute children, cute animals, and cute elves – well, you can see the trend here. They would also include fanciful creations of airships and other imaginative craft captained by Father Christmas or even Santa Claus – depending on which side of the Atlantic you resided.

There was an abundance of lace, delicate curly wire decoration, beadwork, tinsel and other materials… often on the same ornament.

As the Twentieth century began, Christmas and its celebration was, for most Europeans and Americans, a time to focus on the visible aspects of the season with an emphasis on the delights of children. Gift-giving to the younger members of the family was encouraged not only by the youngsters themselves, but by enterprising merchants as well.

The number, variety and complexity of glass ornaments coming out of Germany was now augmented by competitors in Czechoslovakia and other countries. These ornaments, however, retained their handcrafted originality, even when produced in the vast numbers demanded by an ever-growing consumer base. Because they were all handmade, by people who often followed in the glassmaking traditions of generations of their families before them, each ornament had a touch of individual craftsmanship.

World War I, the War To End All Wars, not only halted production and shipments of ornaments from Germany, but created a momentary backlash against all things German. This was the time of the Hot Dog that was once a frankfurter, of Victory Cabbage (the salad formerly known as sauerkraut), and the recasting of street names from proudly German to perhaps civic-minded boosterism American.

The resumption of manufacture, and purchase, of German glass ornaments began in earnest not long after the War. As events in the Nineteen Thirties began to demonstrate, however, perhaps another war would not be far off.

Businessmen involved in the German ornament trade had long had sales and import offices in New York, but one in particular, Max Eckhardt, could see that his business – and the supply of Christmas ornaments so important to American households just coming out of the Great Depression – was going to be greatly affected by possible hostilities. In the late 30’s he and a representative of F.W.Woolworth, the largest seller of Christmas ornaments in the country, got together to see if they could persuade the Corning Company of Corning,New York to determine a way to make American glass ornaments. Corning had a type of machine that ordinarily made thousands of light bulbs out of a ribbon of glass. Sensing an essentially guaranteed market, Corning agreed to see if its machine (one of which now resides at The Henry Ford, America’s Greatest History Attraction, in Dearborn, Michigan) could successfully turn out glass ornaments with sufficient popular appeal.

By 1940 Corning was making about 300,000 ornaments a day, compared with the perhaps 600 for a skilled German glassblower, and sending them to other companies for decoration.The largest customer was Max Eckhardt who by now had established an All-American company known as Shiny Brite. Initially Shiny Brite Ornaments were lacquered by machine on the outside and then decorated by hand.

The following year the ornaments were silvered on the inside so they would remain “shiny bright” for longer periods, but WWII intervened and material shortages caused the company to decorate the clear glass balls with simple thin stripes in pastel colors which didn’t require as much metallic oxide pigment. Corning, moreover, was able to alter its machines to produce a greater variety of shapes and sizes of glass ball without using scarce war material.

But the necessities of war persisted and the sturdy metal cap that held the little hook for hanging the ornaments had to give way to cardboard and often you had to provide your own hanging device – yarn, at our house– to replace the less prevalent hooks.

Today, Christopher Radko, the entrepreneur who discovered and recreated many of the historic glass ornament molds from Germany and Czechoslovakia, has recreated much of the Shiny Brite ornament collection.

For those in the Baby Boomer generation, childhood memories of Christmas often revolve around the tree and its ornaments and other decorations as much as they do of a specific present (unless it was a pony – everyone wanted a pony; fortunately, few of us got one.)

And the main source of those ornaments and decorations was still F.W. Woolworth and its competing five-and-dime stores Kresge and Neisner’s and whatever other regional chain was in your particular locale.These were the stores that had the purchasing power to be able to sell the increasingly complex and varied ornaments for as little as a dime or perhaps twenty cents.

There were other sources to be sure, primarily the dowager department stores of Macy’s and Gimbel’s and Marshall Field’s and Wanamaker’s and even The Dixie Store. But these were the “special”ornaments whose purchase was often limited to a few, or sometimes only one, commemorative ornaments a year.

In the heyday of the big department stores it was often a memorable “outing” as Mother (and occasionally Father as well) would dress the children in their Sunday best and go downtown to see the “Big Tree” with its hundreds of ornaments, often available nearby to take home, but just as often created solely to carry out a visual theme of Candyland or Santa’s Workshop or Teddy Bears on Parade. Sometimes, such as at Marshall Field’s flagship store on State Street in Chicago, the tree would be the main feature in the elegant dining room, and reservations would be required to be made months in advance. And woe betides the youngster whose misfortune it was to come down with croup or the flu just before the big day.

Complexity and variety of ornaments were the driving engines of ornament sales. Injection molding, for instance, instead of simply blowing bubbles out of molten ribbons – of glass or even plastic – allowed for the addition of highly reflective indentations in formally totally round ornaments.

[Side note: even these indentations had their origins in legend. It was said that if you placed a reflective ornament on your tree any evil spirits trying to enter your home would see their reflections and withdraw, terrified of what they saw!]

Injection molding also allowed for a variety of shapes previously unavailable to traditional glass blowers. Intricate figures and even whole scenes could be created in plastic and then encased within a pastel-tinted outer shell.The familiar shapes of movie stars, real or animated, were sold by the thousands.

While some homes had small Christmas villages under the tree, often patterned after an idealized London of Dickens’ time – and just as often including an electric train – others would include miniature churches, homes, stores and other structures on their tree. Sometimes the buildings were settled on patches of snow-covered ground, with trees and other vegetation abundant. Sometimes the buildings were designed to be illuminated by Christmas lights and often included some sort of clip arrangement to facilitate that placement.

There were elves and other forest creatures aplenty, with soft fuzzy bodies and really, really cute little faces.They found their places alongside (or further behind on a branch) equally cute snowmen and Santas and reindeer. Cute was as much a trait of the early Fifties as it was in mid-Victorian times.

Perhaps it was this excess of cuteness that led to the stark simplicity of aluminum trees. On the other hand, even aluminum trees had special ornaments that manufacturers assured were specially designed to be just as safe and fireproof as the trees themselves.

Generations of critics have often bemoaned the commercialization of Christmas (Stan Freburg’s satiric recording of Green Christmas comes to mind) but it was not really institutionalized in the realm of ornaments until Hallmark began its Keepsake Collection in 1973.

Before then there was the occasional popular culture figure, radio serial star or comic book hero, or even an occasional product placement ornament such as a Swift’s Premium Ham.

But after Hallmark, came le deluge. More than 3,000 limited edition Keepsakes alone.Untold ornaments from McDonald’s and other national chains.More limited edition commemoratives – including one of our favorites, the old Tiger Stadium, that was commissioned by a Detroit stationery store – were created by civic groups and others as fund-raising projects.

Then there are the Christopher Radko ornaments that bring back memories of the past for some of us, new senses of wonder for younger generations. And let us not forget Department 56, Franklin Mint and similar organizations with their planned obsolescence designed to enhance the value of their brand of ornaments and decorations.

Characters from television and the movies, cartoon advertising spokespeople and spokesanimals and other commercial ornaments, were OK, perhaps, as emblematic of pop cultures and the faddish nature of our society, but somehow just not the same as a marshmallow with a lifesaver affixed to it with a piece of yarn and then a birthday candle inserted in the top, or a carefully jig-sawn, sanded and shellacked 1/4-inch thick plywood bell with“To Mom, love, Christmas 1952” on it.

But the personal touch has been retained by companies such as OrnamentShop.com.Years ago Dianne Weller migrated from faux perfumes, to log animals, to personalized yard greetings, to the idea of personalized ornaments. She started with charitable Christmas shows such as the ones sponsored by Junior Leagues across the country (23 in one year!) or the Kingswood School Alumnae Association in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. She then added seasonal shopping mall kiosks in major markets in the Midwest. Eventually her highly popular website, OrnamentShop.com was born.Dianne has now amassed a collection of suppliers that ranges from hill-country artisans to entire companies that specialize in nothing but personal ornaments.

Through the years, willing assistants (the elves in the back room, thank you very much) have learned how to make sure that the message and the names are spelled right, are in the right location, the hair color and other variables are correct – and that the printing is readable and not smudged…

What’s to come with Christmas ornaments in the future? Smoke detectors, for one. Several companies make attractive ornaments that are also effective warning devices should the tree catch fire. (Be sure to look for the Underwriters’ Listed label on the product itself, not just on packaging or literature, so that you’ll know your detector is in compliance with their strict guidelines.) Another ornament trend takes advantage of computer microchips and can provide you with a musical tree if you wish. Just be careful about your choice of songs.There are some we could name that you wouldn’t want playing in your head for the next couple of months.We’re fully expecting to see an ornament that will monitor the water supply in your tree stand and will warn you if it’s running low.We’re also anticipating some sort of universal light control ornament that will allow you to have greater control over lights that currently blink, or not, chase each other or just sit there and perhaps even glow and dim to the music played by the musical microchip.

And probably, in the not-too-distant future, an ornament that takes a 3-megapixel picture of Santa as he fills the stockings with care!”

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7 thoughts on “Very Ornamental

  1. I love the german glass ornaments and also the cheap versions that we had growing up! …We bought a few boxes at a flea market when we were newly married and they were pennies…before they became trendy! I love the pinecone shaped ones best….They remind me of home and of sweet Christmas moments with my mom and sisters. A nice post Nancy and I do love the photo! gail

  2. My head is filled with visions of sugar plums…and ornaments now. Fascinating stuff, Nancy. Thank you for sharing it with us all.

  3. Wow..that was a lot of work you did on this piece. I love how you told the story of Woolworths. I just watched a special on that this week. I visited the glassworks up around Cape Cod and they also tell the story of making ornaments for Woolworths. Radko once surprised a woman who was a fan. He decorated her whole house in his unique ornaments. Can you imagine? It was beautiful. I’m sure it was several thousand dollars worth of his works. Great article and very interesting. My great aunt Nana that I talk about all the time was of English/German heritage. She lived in Old Salem, NC and decorated her tree with real beeswax candles. I bet UL would not guarantee or recommend that!

    Nancy…I picked your post on these Christmas ornaments as my 5,000th post. I just crossed over to Master Blotanist. Thank you for always being there for me even though I went through a lot of blogging woes. You’ll never know what it meant to me. All my points from the other blogs were erased with each new blog. I kept leaving and coming back to blotanical. But you and many others stuck with me and encouraged me. Thank you.

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