Christmas Tree Ornaments Then and Now

By Carole Gorney

If you are a baby boomer as I am, one of the fondest memories of your childhood Christmas is likely that of the delicate glass ornaments that were hung lovingly on the family’s holiday tree every December. Whether your ornaments came from the five and dime, or a more expensive department store, they were special. If you still have some of those vintage ornaments today, you are very lucky. If not, you have to rely on memories. Either way, it’s interesting to learn more about the origin of ornaments and how they have evolved.

Decorating evergreens goes back to the earliest days of the Christmas tree in Germany. The very first decorations were simply nuts and berries and apples. Later, thin paper streamers were added to represent the “hair” of angels. Eventually, hard cookies were baked in the shape of fruits, stars, angels and bells to be hung from the tree branches with thread or yarn. In early America, popcorn and cranberries were strung through the branches from top to bottom.

Bowing to history, my friends and I adorned my first Christmas tree with handmade strings of real popcorn and cranberries, feeding my dog Miranda discarded kernels of corn as we worked. When I returned from work the next day, my beautiful tree was lying flat on the floor, with most of the old glass ornaments my mother had given me smashed beyond repair.  Need I explain what had happened?

The first tree with lighted candles is credited to Martin Luther, who is said to have added the lights to represent the stars in the sky when Jesus was born. Perhaps the origin of the lighted tree explains why for the first few decades it was popular among Protestants, but not Catholics.

Mass-produced ornaments originated in the late 1800s in the glass-making hub of Lauscha, Germany.  Companies that had been making bottles and window panes were soon turning out richly colored, luminescent molded glass ornaments in a multitude of shapes, including animals, saints, children and famous people.  The process involved first heating a glass tube over a flame, and then inserting the heated tube into a clay mold and blowing the heated glass to expand to the shape of the mold. When the glass cooled, silver nitrate was swirled into it and allowed to dry, after which the ornament was hand painted.

By 1880, these ornaments were being imported to the United States by mass merchandiser F.W. Woolworth. It is reported that within a decade he was selling $25 million worth of the baubles.

World War I caused a temporary halt in German imports, and fear in the 1930s of another war, convinced F.W. Woolworth to persuade the Corning Company in New York State to manufacture American glass ornaments. By 1940, Corning was producing 300,000 machine-made ornaments a day.

During the war, Corning was able to manufacture a variety of sizes and shapes of ornaments, but the metal caps gave way to cardboard, and most buyers had to provide their own hanger – yarn or thread rather than the metal hook.

After the war, ornaments continued to evolve. Injection molding allowed indentations in previously round ornaments that created mirror-like reflections or provided spaces for inserting plastic scenes and intricate figures. Many of my smashed ornaments were of this type, and I’m grateful to have three left intact.

In an effort to make up for my lost ornaments, my mother started giving me a dated commemorative ornament every year until the Christmas before her death.  My favorites are the Inuit Eskimo in the clear plastic igloo, and the carousel that revolves.  Most of her gifts came from the Hallmark limited-edition Keepsake Collection, which initiated the collectible industry in 1973, and has been credited with or vilified for the commercialization of Christmas ornaments. Christopher Radko and his European-made, hand-blown ornaments reminiscent of the past, added significantly to what has become a huge collectible market.

Today’s ornaments defy categorization. They are made of wood, acrylic, pewter, bone china, porcelain, cloth, plastic and, of course, glass. They also represent a mind-boggling array of subjects and themes. No one is more aware of this than Lisa Girard, retail buyer for the Moravian Book Shop in downtown Historic Bethlehem, where Girard recently gave me a personal guided tour of the shop’s Christmas decoration inventory.

Girard told me the subjects of ornaments have expanded beyond the traditional angels and Santas, to more commonplace items. “People want things that are familiar and that they can relate to in their lives,” she explained, taking me to the rack of glass ornaments shaped and decorated as bags of potato chips, popcorn boxes, hot dogs, Chinese takeout containers, fortune cookies and beer mugs topped with foam. Nearby were replicas of baseball players, ballet dancers and gymnasts. For the more manually oriented, the Old World collection provided colorful glittered hammers and wrenches.

The inventory includes ornaments that appeal to “tweens,” according to Girard, who pointed out a whole line of miniature purses, high heels and, of course, cell phones. “These are the first things to sell out,” she said.

Of course, familiar doesn’t exclude nostalgia. I was attracted to the wooden replica of the old TV set complete with rabbit ears. “We try to cover the whole spectrum,” Girard commented, pointing me to a display of old-fashioned Belsnickel Santas and ornaments painted with Dickens scenes.

Christmas ornaments are “a huge business,” according to Girard, but what does the future hold? “People keep adding [ornaments] as they progress in their lives. They aren’t buying so much for themselves, but for their children and grandchildren,” Girard answered. “New generations will keep looking for new and different things.”

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