The Ghosts of Christmas past - Antique Christmas ornaments
As we move into December and the days turn icy cold, trees are felled and bundled into houses and boxes of treasured ornaments are dusted off for their annual display. Wikicollecting gets into the festive mood, and decks the halls for a vintage Christmas!
In darkest Latvia, circa 1510, a visual pioneer first decorated a fir tree, with roses. By the early 1800s, around Christmas time, it had become common practice to hide items in trees, such as nuts, fruits, sugared treats, shaped cookies, ribbons and small gifts. Thus the tradition of Christmas ornaments was born across Europe. A glass manufacturer in the town of Lauscha, eastern Germany, began producing spherical glass ornaments known as ‘kugels’ (German for ‘ball’) in the shape of fruit, nuts and vegetables as decorative Christmas items. What began as a cottage industry soon expanded as the items proved popular, and entrepreneurs started thinking about mass manufacturing. In the 1870s these glass ornaments began to be exported, particularly by Americans such as F. W. Woolworth, who apparently sold $25 million worth of baubles in America in 1890. Lauscha is therefore known as the birthplace of what is now considered the typical Christmas tree ornament. At the same time, Dresden and Leipzig areas were making paper ornaments, and Seibnitz had their own variety.
Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert brought the tradition of an indoor Christmas tree to England, encouraging its popularity among the British. A photograph of the Royal Family sitting around their Christmas tree appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1860, and inspired Britons and Americans alike. Many Victorian ornaments were homemade by families, as well as those produced by manufacturers.
After the First World War, the industry moved from Germany to other places in Europe, particularly Czechoslovakia. The 1920s and 30s saw the Japanese imitating these ornaments more cheaply, which suited depression-era America. Immigrants to the U.S. also began manufacturing, such as Max Eckardt who produced the highly collectible Shiny-Brite brand of ornaments during the 1940s and 50s.
During World War II, ornaments began to be sold economically in boxed sets. Manufacturers were also forced to change their methods due to the war effort demand for metal, so stopped silvering the glass ornaments and used paper instead of metal for caps and hangers.
Today the wide range of these beautiful hand-crafted ornaments, whether glass, paper, tin, wire, cotton or early electric lights, are a nostalgic reminder of Christmas past that collectors can’t get enough of.
Classic types of antique & vintage Christmas ornaments
The story goes that Christmas kugels developed from witch balls, spheres of glass hung in houses to ward off evil spirits and dark witchery. The glassblowing centre at Lauscha, Germany, is considered the origin of Christmas kugels, which they made from the 1800s onwards. It was a cottage industry in which men would blow the glass, women would silver the ornaments, and children would paint and finish them. The earliest examples were spheres and shapes that resembled nuts, fruits and vegetables, like eggs, grapes and turnips, in mimicry of the items already commonly found in Christmas trees. Later, as popularity became evident, there was no end to the shapes that Lauscha glass ornaments could take: stars, hearts, figures, animals, saints.
Silvered glass, or mercury glass, consisted of two layers of glass with silvering in the middle. These are much heavier than most ornaments, and can often be identified by rust spots signifying oxidisation through age.
Sebnitz ornaments were produced from around the 1880s onwards. They became a cottage industry in the town of Sebnitz, Germany, hand crafted in the houses of families. Generally they were constructed from leftover and found products: wire, cotton, the holey sheets which sequins had been punched out of, wax figures, aluminum paper, cardboard, beads etc. A variety of designs are available, including sleighs, houses, windmills, mangers, ships, and later even zeppelins.
Dresden ornaments generally refer to the embossed paper and cardboard Christmas ornaments manufactured in the Dresden-Leipzig region of Germany between 1880 and 1890. The cardboard was dampened to make it flexible, and pressed in a stamping die to form the ornament.
They are available in a huge variety of shapes, suns, moons, fish, every imaginable animal, including exotic creatures such as polar bears, storks, eagles, peacocks and alligators. They are often gilded, silvered, or painted in bright and festive colours. While thousands were produced, their delicacy means that relatively few survive, making them desirable and valuable.
Christmas lights from the early days of electricity are rare and very sought-after. Originally, Christmas lights were candle holders, affixed to the branches of the tree. An assistant of Thomas Edison himself was the one to first introduce electric Christmas lights, in 1882. His name was Edward Johnson. Strings of these early lights, or Edison Christmas light bulbs, are desirable Christmas ornaments.
Shiny-Brite Ornaments were the most popular Christmas tree decoration in the United States throughout the 1940s and 1950s. This gives them a nostalgic air for Americans who grew up placing Shiny-Brites on their trees, and today they are very collectible. The Shiny-Brite company was established by Max Eckardt, to mass produce the hand-painted glass baubles in America that he had previously been exporting out of Germany. The antagonism against Germany during the Second World War meant that the popularity of Eckardt’s all-American product soared. Shiny-Brite were forced to close in 1962, due to the rising popularity of plastic ornaments. However, a resurgence of interest in these beautifully produced glass items sees a thriving collectibles market today. They are worth more when they retain their original boxes.
Other popular Christmas ornaments
- Cotton ornaments - European artisans created ornaments from a process of spinning cotton, in forms of fruit and vegetables, and sometimes animals and people. Cotton batting ornaments are similar, which were also made in the Lauscha region. These were made from sheets of cotton batting, wrapped around a wire frame and hand painted. Often animal or human figures, these could also be dressed up in miniature items of clothing.
- The Belsnickel – the forerunner of Santa Claus, a fur-clad and raggedy Christmas gift bringer who beats the children when they are not good. Antique & vintage figures depicting him are popular collectibles, particularly when they possess rabbit-fur beards and other original features.
- Candy containers – since the first Christmas trees, sweets and treats have played a part in Christmas. The first candy containers were formed of cotton or paper mache, often depicting figures, atop hollow boxes, logs or stands that contained the candy. Santa Claus candy containers are often the most popular.
- Feather trees - artificial trees were not always plastic. They have been around since the late 19th century, a response to the increasing concerns about deforestation around Christmas time. They were generally made of dyed goose or turkey feathers, and decorated with the normal Christmas ornaments. They were brought to America and sold in dime stores like Woolworths over the 1920s and 30s.
- Victorian homemade ornaments - ladies magazines of the Victorian era urged women to instigate a family activity of creating homemade Christmas ornaments. They provided patterns and guides, which proved popular across England, Europe and America. These were made in all sorts of shapes and designs, with all manner of materials, and often present a truly unique piece created not for sale, but by a family for their own tree.
The key interest in antique & vintage Christmas ornaments is that they are hand-made. Whether this was in a home, as part of a town’s cottage industry, or even mass manufactured, as long as the item was crafted by hand and not by machine, it is considered worthy of inclusion among these charming collectibles.
You will find them in antique stores, at yard sales, in thrift stores, at flea markets, and on eBay. If you’re lucky, you may discover a hidden cache in your grandparents’ or parents’ attic.
You can ascertain an antique or vintage item in a number of ways. Earlier ornaments are smaller than those of today. They are usually decorated in soft colours, with hand painted detail. Hand paint can be verified, so learn to spot it. The more examples you see, the more recognisable you will find it. The paint can often be faded or distressed. Hand blown glass items have an uneven base beneath the cap, while machine made are even. Older companies often marked their names on the item, whereas new cheap examples do not have this.
Despite the fact that many items are becoming rarer and more expensive, there are still many many options for collectors on a budget. Prices vary from $1-$12,000 depending on the ornament, condition, and who is selling it. There are a myriad of options, and as always, buy what you admire.
There are a number of Christmas collectors clubs around the world. It may be worth joining one of these, to share information and trade items.
The Golden Glow of Christmas Past has some fantastic information and insights into many different antique & vintage Christmas ornaments.