The Joy of Christmas Ornaments

Christmas is for collectors like no other holiday. While scores of antiques and collectibles categories have emerged—nutcrackers, snow globes, putz villages, pink aluminum trees from the 1950s—the quintessential Christmas collectible remains the ornament.

The custom of decorating a tree can be traced to 16th-century Germany when a small fir would be adorned with apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers in the community guild house. By the 19th century, the tree-trimming custom had moved inside homes throughout northern Europe and Russia, and families festooned the trees with their own collections of ornaments made of glass, ceramics, metal and wood.

Baubles are the most common collectible decoration—a hollow sphere coated with a thin metallic layer and then painted or dyed in bright colors so they would glitter in candlelight.

Vintage West German glass ornaments

The original and most collectible baubles were made in Lauscha, a town in central Germany that accepted Protestant artisans fleeing persecution. According to many accounts, a glassblower named Hans Greiner created glass representations of nuts, apples and candy because he was unable to afford the real treats for his tree. The inside of the original baubles were made reflective with mercury and lead, to be replaced later with silver nitrate and sugar water.

The ornament craft spread among artisans in central Germany. Perhaps the biggest boost for the ornament trade came from Queen Victoria’s tree. She had nine children with her German-born husband, Albert, and the royal tradition of elaborate Christmas decorations grew with her family. London periodicals ran illustrations of Victoria’s spectacular tree festooned with both clear glass and Lauscha ornaments, and their popularity spread.

1956 German paper ornament

Firms and home-based foundries that were churning out basic glass for vials, thermometers and other instruments added frilly ornaments to their production lines. In the 1880s, the tradition crossed the Atlantic when American retailer F.W. Woolworth introduced German glass ornaments to American shoppers. The best surviving ornaments of the 19th century command $500 or more today.

Lisa J. Monse, online proprietor of The Velveteen Rabbit, offers a fine example of early 20th-century German Santa Claus ornaments. It has no known reproductions, and its paint and silvering are not chipped.

A German figural antique glass Christmas ornament in excellent to mint condition. This one is named “Sour Grapes.”

For decoration, artisans moved from hand painting to using mouth-operated airbrushes to achieve more delicate effects. They spread gelatin adhesive and then sprinkled gold, silver, glass dust or tiny glass beads called “Venetian Dew.” To achieve a shimmering effect of snow, the ornaments were dunked into a solution of gelatin and starch.

In addition to glass ornaments, whimsical ornaments were of pressed tin, wax and painted cardboard. They came in angels and other traditional Christmas styles, but also miniatures such as tiny watering cans and rabbits in baskets.

In the late 19th century, figurine ornaments became popular. Among the hundreds of characters were Santa Claus, elves, angels, Biblical characters such as the Three Kings, snowmen and fairy-tale characters. More elaborate collectible figurines will be decorated with miniature costumes and beards while animal ornaments may be trimmed with feathers.

Ornaments from the 1940s

Today, tin examples in fine condition with bright paint can fetch $400 apiece.

An interesting category in ornament collecting is the Christmas pickle. It was traditional for German families to hide this iridescent ornament deep in the tree’s branches. The most observant child would find the pickle ornament and receive an extra gift—along with good luck for the next year. Today, a rare glass-pickle ornament from the turn of the 20th century may command more than $1,000.

Germany’s handcrafted ornament industry failed after World War I, and new ornaments were mass-produced—first in the United States and then in Eastern Europe and Asia.

By 1940, the Corning Glass Co. 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—especially Shiny Brite. The first Shiny Brite ornaments were lacquered by machine on the outside and then decorated by hand, but even that process became automated.

Shiny Brite ornaments measured up to 1.75 inches in diameter. Unlike folk ornaments, these collectibles are kitschy rather than natural in appearance. A 12-pack of plain and striped bulbs in good condition can be found for $60-70.

Seems Like Old Times in Haverford, Pa., has a selection of Shiny Brites.

Shiny Brites

More intricate ornaments from the 1930s-1950s run $20 apiece. Among the popular examples are frosted yellow bells, glossy red pine cones and pink-and-turquoise striped orbs with snowflake indents.

Ornaments created during the baby boomer years were marked by the injection molding, which allowed for merchandising—think of the Coke bottle—that was previously unavailable to traditional glass-ornament blowers, as well as decoration with rhinestones to add a little extra holiday glitter.

Advances in graphics allowed for cartoon characters and pop-culture images to be extended to ornaments such as this one featuring Snoopy and friends offered by Kay Andrews of Black Cat Collectibles.

Snoopy and Woodstock.

Also popular, if not precisely Christmasy, are depictions of movie stars like Marilyn Monroe, such as offered by Carolyn S. Dorsey, who operates a collectibles business called Memories Past and Present in Henderson, Ky.

This Marilyn prefers Christmas trees

When storing antique and vintage glass ornaments, remember to first remove the hooks, which can scratch the paint. Wrap the ornaments in acid-free tissue paper to cushion them against bumps that can cause them to shatter. Don’t store vintage ornaments in damp locations since this can cause the paint to crack and flake.

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