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Antique Christmas Ornaments:
by Steve Mills, contributing editor for Heartland Trails
Few things bring the feelings of nostalgic familiarity like the Christmas tree, glittering with its decorations as they have for as long as we have known them... But, this tradition may not be as old as many believe!
The first Christmas Tree known was decorated in Latvia in 1510. The tree was decorated with roses, a symbol of the Virgin Mary, as well as apples, onions, pears, nuts, candies, and other fruits. The triangular shape of the Fir tree was carefully chosen to symbolize the Holy Trinity. Later in the 16th Century, Germany picked up the tree-trimming tradition with similar ornaments. The practice was introduced to the British Isles in the mid 1700's, by Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, and spread to Russia and North America over the next hundred years. For a very long time, the traditional decorations, that is, fruits, candies, gilded nutshells and the sort, were used exclusively on holiday trees, until, sometime in the 1800's, glassmakers in Lauscha, Germany began to produce hand-made glass ornaments to hang from their Christmas trees.
The original production of Christmas ornaments was far from what it is today. The industry was mostly comprised of 'Cottage' manufactories, where the father and grandfather of the family would blow the glass, the grandmother and mother of the family would do the silvering, and the children were left to install the stem, or hangar, as well as hand-painting the details onto each glass ball. The process was time consuming, and many families would work between eight and fifteen hours per day on their craft, producing between three- and six-hundred ornaments in a week. These ornaments were known as 'Schecken', or 'Plumbum', and were spotted, dappled ornaments, and are among the first glass ornaments ever made for the Christmas tree.
Kugel ornaments were originally produced as heavy, thick-walled glass bubbles, however in the later 1860's, Lauscha glassmakers perfected the art of blowing paper-thin spheres of glass, making them more desirable thanks to their lighter weight, allowing them to be hung on the branches of a tree. In the 1870's, a glassmaker had the idea to blow a bubble of glass into a pine-cone shaped cookie mold, and as soon as the 1880's, molded ornaments were excessively popular. By the 1890's, the molding process was being perfected, and the roots of mass produced Christmas ornaments were beginning to take hold. From the period between 1870 and 1940, over 5,000 different molds were used to produce a wide variety of ornaments, in shapes ranging from animals and people, to fruits, transportation items, and crystal icicles.
In the later 1800's, Czechoslovakian and Russian craftsmen picked up the trade, and were competing head-on with the Germans. In Russia, after the Communist Revolution in 1917, Christmas was converted to an aesthetic holiday, and Christmas trees were banned until in 1920, faced with a crumbling economic system, Lenin opened up some channels for private enterprise. Among the first of those businesses, Christmas ornament manufactories began to spring up in very traditional cottage workshops. Around this time, Japan also took on the trade, and while their ornaments were well made and quite cheap, they were exceedingly rare. Around the 1920's In America, glass ornaments produced by the Corning Company's 'Shiny Brite' line were offered in F.W. Woolworth's five-and-dime stores. Woolworth was quoted as saying he was unsure about the new product, until he had realized he was selling $25 million in ornaments in his retail outlets. In the same time period, over 250 million ornaments were being imported to America every year. With the start of World War II, in 1939, Lauscha's fame began to fade, and ultimately died out altogether, when Germany was divided into east and west. Lauscha was oriented ten miles east of the divide, and many of the glassblowers fled to western Germany and settled in Coburg.
With an insight to the history of these surprisingly recent artifacts of Christmas culture, you may find yourself interested in building your own collection of antique and vintage Christmas tree ornaments. The most important part of starting any collection is familiarizing yourself with what you intend to collect. Vintage Christmas ornaments aren't limited to blown glass. Many other types of vintage and antique ornaments are also on the market, from cotton items to ephemera, or paper and cardboard decorations, as well as ornaments made of tin and aluminum. In the book, 'Pictorial Guide to Christmas Ornaments and Collectibles (Identification and Values)' by George Johnson, the subject of glass ornaments is the primary focus, with additional chapters covering Dresden ornaments, and paper, wax, fabric, metal, and plastic ornaments as well, with pictures of nearly 2,000 different types.
When looking for antique and vintage ornaments in flea markets, antique shows, church and garage sales, and in antique shops, it's necessary to have a few rules of thumb to go by. This is especially true if you find yourself staring down an old ornament without your trusty reference book on hand. First, examine the color. Old ornaments are usually soft in color, with hand-painted details. Pre-World-War ornaments are most often silvered on the inside of the glass. Examine the painted details for excessive wear and distressing. Any wear you see should be random and shouldn't detract from the elegance of the item when viewed at arm's length. All antique ornaments were hand-blown, and will not be cleanly broken at the neck. When examining an ornament, remove the stem if possible, but note, some are permanently attached! Once the cap is off, you can examine the break line, which should be uneven and perhaps even a little jagged. Machine-manufactured ornaments have very smooth breaks in the glass. Antique ornaments will also feature the name of the manufacturer, or the country of origin on the stem. Newer ornaments are not marked in this way. Also, old ornaments' caps and stems are usually well made ornamental pieces, which can serve as an identifying mark on its own.
To care for your antique ornaments, proper storage is very important. Be sure to store only clean ornaments that have been dusted and wiped clean where possible. Wrap them in a thick layer of acid-free tissue paper, and pack them in sturdy, divided ornament boxes. While many keep their ornaments in the attic, see if you can set aside some climate-controlled space to store your ornaments instead, as the changing cycles of heat and cold, as well as humidity can deteriorate your collection. When displaying, try to keep the most valuable ornaments near the top of the tree. Not necessarily to show them off— though that is nice— but to keep them out of range of pets, unwitting bumps and brushes, and young children.
The best collections aren't built only around the Christmas season, but are year-round hobbies for serious collectors. Antique ornaments can be purchased at far more attractive prices in the 'off season', and the best ornaments will surface throughout the year. If you shop for them only during the Christmas season, you'll likely find the market picked through, with the best offerings having been purchased as the swarms of seasonal collectors begin their hunt. Wether you're looking for Kugels, Witch's Eyes, Plumbums, or the vast variety of other glass, wooden, cotton, paper, cardboard, and tin ornaments, you're sure to have a fantastic time building your collection, to be proudly displayed for family and friends during the holidays.