The Rise of All American Ornaments - The 1900's


The resumption of manufacture, and purchase, of German glass ornaments began in earnest not long after the War. As events in the Nineteen Thirties began to demonstrate, however, perhaps another war would not be far off.

Businessmen involved in the German ornament trade had long had sales and import offices in New York, but one in particular,Max Eckhardt, could see that his business – and the supply of Christmas ornaments so important to American households just coming out of the Great Depression – was going to be greatly affected by possible hostilities. In the late 30’s he and a representative of F.W.Woolworth, the largest seller of Christmas ornaments in the country, got together to see if they could persuade the Corning Company of Corning,New York to determine a way to make American glass ornaments. Corning had a type of machine that ordinarily made thousands of light bulbs out of a ribbon of glass. Sensing an essentially guaranteed market, Corning agreed to see if its machine (one of which now resides at The Henry Ford, America’s Greatest History Attraction, in Dearborn, Michigan) could successfully turn out glass ornaments with sufficient popular appeal.

By 1940 Corning 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.The largest customer was Max Eckhardt who by now had established an All-American company known as Shiny Brite. Initially Shiny Brite Ornaments were lacquered by machine on the outside and then decorated by hand.

The following year the ornaments were silvered on the inside so they would remain “shiny bright” for longer periods, but WWII intervened and material shortages caused the company to decorate the clear glass balls with simple thin stripes in pastel colors which didn’t require as much metallic oxide pigment. Corning, moreover, was able to alter its machines to produce a greater variety of shapes and sizes of glass ball without using scarce war material.

But the necessities of war persisted and the sturdy metal cap that held the little hook for hanging the ornaments had to give way to cardboard and often you had to provide your own hanging device – yarn, at our house– to replace the less prevalent hooks.

Today, Christopher Radko, the entrepreneur who discovered and recreated many of the historic glass ornament molds from Germany and Czechoslovakia, has recreated much of the Shiny Brite ornament collection.

The Ornaments We Remember

For those in the Baby Boomer generation, childhood memories of Christmas often revolve around the tree and its ornaments and other decorations as much as they do of a specific present (unless it was a pony – everyone wanted a pony; fortunately, few of us got one.)

And the main source of those ornaments and decorations was still F.W. Woolworth and its competing five-and-dime stores Kresge and Neisner’s and whatever other regional chain was in your particular locale.These were the stores that had the purchasing power to be able to sell the increasingly complex and varied ornaments for as little as a dime or perhaps twenty cents.

There were other sources to be sure, primarily the dowager department stores of Macy’s and Gimbel’s and Marshall Field’s and Wanamaker’s and even The Dixie Store. But these were the “special”ornaments whose purchase was often limited to a few, or sometimes only one, commemorative ornaments a year.

In the heyday of the big department stores it was often a memorable “outing” as Mother (and occasionally Father as well) would dress the children in their Sunday best and go downtown to see the “Big Tree” with its hundreds of ornaments, often available nearby to take home, but just as often created solely to carry out a visual theme of Candyland or Santa’s Workshop or Teddy Bears on Parade. Sometimes, such as at Marshall Field’s flagship store on State Street in Chicago, the tree would be the main feature in the elegant dining room, and reservations would be required to be made months in advance. And woe betides the youngster whose misfortune it was to come down with croup or the flu just before the big day.

Complexity and variety of ornaments were the driving engines of ornament sales. Injection molding, for instance, instead of simply blowing bubbles out of molten ribbons – of glass or even plastic – allowed for the addition of highly reflective indentations in formally totally round ornaments.

[ Side note: even these indentations had their origins in legend. It was said that if you placed a reflective ornament on your tree any evil spirits trying to enter your home would see their reflections and withdraw, terrified of what they saw! ]

Injection molding also allowed for a variety of shapes previously unavailable to traditional glass blowers. Intricate figures and even whole scenes could be created in plastic and then encased within a pastel-tinted outer shell.The familiar shapes of movie stars, real or animated, were sold by the thousands.

While some homes had small Christmas villages under the tree, often patterned after an idealized London of Dickens’ time – and just as often including an electric train – others would include miniature churches, homes, stores and other structures on their tree. Sometimes the buildings were settled on patches of snow-covered ground, with trees and other vegetation abundant. Sometimes the buildings were designed to be illuminated by Christmas lights and often included some sort of clip arrangement to facilitate that placement.

Exporting Ornaments to the World

There were elves and other forest creatures aplenty, with soft fuzzy bodies and really, really cute little faces.They found their places alongside (or further behind on a branch) equally cute snowmen and Santas and reindeer. Cute was as much a trait of the early Fifties as it was in mid-Victorian times.

Perhaps it was this excess of cuteness that led to the stark simplicity of aluminum trees. On the other hand, even aluminum trees had special ornaments that manufacturers assured were specially designed to be just as safe and fireproof as the trees themselves.

Generations of critics have often bemoaned the commercialization of Christmas (Stan Freburg’s satiric recording of Green Christmas comes to mind) but it was not really institutionalized in the realm of ornaments until Hallmark began its Keepsake Collection in 1973.

Before then there was the occasional popular culture figure, radio serial star or comic book hero, or even an occasional product placement ornament such as a Swift’s Premium Ham.

But after Hallmark, came le deluge.More than 3,000 limited edition Keepsakes alone.Untold ornaments from McDonald’s and other national chains.More limited edition commemoratives – including one of our favorites, the old Tiger Stadium, that was commissioned by a Detroit stationery store – were created by civic groups and others as fund-raising projects.

Then there are the Christopher Radko ornaments that bring back memories of the past for some of us, new senses of wonder for younger generations. And let us not forget Department 56, Franklin Mint and similar organizations with their planned obsolescence designed to enhance the value of their brand of ornaments and decorations.

Characters from television and the movies, cartoon advertising spokespeople and spokesanimals and other commercial ornaments, were OK, perhaps, as emblematic of pop cultures and the faddish nature of our society, but somehow just not the same as a marshmallow with a lifesaver affixed to it with a piece of yarn and then a birthday candle inserted in the top, or a carefully jig-sawn, sanded and shellacked 1/4-inch thick plywood bell with“To Mom, love, Christmas 1952” on it.

Personalized Ornaments

But the personal touch has been retained by companies such as ago Dianne Weller migrated from faux perfumes, to log animals, to personalized yard greetings, to the idea of personalized ornaments. She started with charitable Christmas shows such as the ones sponsored by Junior Leagues across the country (23 in one year!) or the Kingswood School Alumnae Association in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. She then added seasonal shopping mall kiosks in major markets in the Midwest. Eventually her highly popular website, was born.Dianne has now amassed a collection of suppliers that ranges from hill-country artisans to entire companies that specialize in nothing but personal ornaments.

Through the years, willing assistants (the elves in the back room, thank you very much) have learned how to make sure that the message and the names are spelled right, are in the right location, the hair color and other variables are correct – and that the printing is readable and not smudged.

With more than a thousand individual permutations and combinations, is truly a “must-click” location not just for Christmas, but for other occasions as well when people want to give a special gift that says “you’re special and I’m glad I know you” to someone – even when that someone is their favorite FedEx or UPS driver.

What’s to come with Christmas ornaments in the future? Smoke detectors, for one. Several companies make attractive ornaments that are also effective warning devices should the tree catch fire. (Be sure to look for the Underwriters’ Listed label on the product itself, not just on packaging or literature, so that you’ll know your detector is in compliance with their strict guidelines.) Another ornament trend takes advantage of computer microchips and can provide you with a musical tree if you wish. Just be careful about your choice of songs.There are some we could name that you wouldn’t want playing in your head for the next couple of months.We’re fully expecting to see an ornament that will monitor the water supply in your tree stand and will warn you if it’s running low.We’re also anticipating some sort of universal light control ornament that will allow you to have greater control over lights that currently blink, or not, chase each other or just sit there and perhaps even glow and dim to the music played by the musical microchip.

And probably, in the not-too-distant future, an ornament that takes a 3-megapixel picture of Santa as he fills the stockings with care.

That’s our brief social history of Christmas ornaments and the trees on which they hang.We hope you enjoyed it. If you’d like to learn more about the customs of Christmas, we suggest the Encyclopedia of Christmas by Tanya Gulevich, published by Omnigraphics, Inc. of Detroit.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Written by Dianne Weller