The Earliest Ornaments - The 1800's


The earliest in the early 1800’s, as we’ve mentioned in passing,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.

German Class Ornaments In the mid -1800S

Up to now trees had been decorated with the creative efforts of the loving hands of family and friends. 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.

Exporting Ornaments to the world - Late 1800's

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. One of the most popular concerns

The Pickle Ornament.

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.

In our next installment, we’ll look at other types of ornaments and see how they evolved through the early part of the Twentieth Century.

German Non-glass ornaments – Dresdens and Tinware

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”.

The Victorians

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.

The Increasing Popularity of Christmas

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.

The Impact of the War to End All Wars

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.

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Written by Dianne Weller