Christmas decorations have a lot of stories to tell. We have to create memories around new ones but antique decorations have stories of their own – beyond your own.
Glass ornaments were first made in Lauscha, Germany in the 1800s. This cottage industry involved the entire family. Generally, men did the glassblowing, women did the silvering and the children helped too.
Many German entrepreneurs seriously began to think of manufacturing ornaments on a mass scale and the rest is, well, history. In Victorian times, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert,who was German, brought the tradition from Germany to his new home in England. Soon all of England adopted the idea of a Christmas tree at Christmas.
In the 1840s, Europeans immigrating to North America brought with them their Christmas traditions. Prior to that time, Christmas was not widely celebrated in North America. And then… the idea caught on in a big way.
Until 1925, virtually all hand blown glass ornaments were manufactured in Germany. By 1935, more then 250 million Christmas ornaments were being imported to the United States. After WWII, the Lauscha area became a part of East Germany.
Many glassblowers fled to West Germany and the industry declined. Around this time, Japan and Czechoslovakia began producing ornaments for the North American market.
At the same time the Corning Company of Corning, New York began to create glass ornaments at the urging of Max Eckhardt who created the Shiny Brite Company (eventually sold to Radko). Business magnate F.W. Woolworth was the first North American retailer to sell glass ornaments. It is said that he was not too sure about this new product line until he realized he was selling more than $25 million worth of ornaments in his five-and-dime stores.
World War II broke out in 1939 which caused severe material shortages and forced Corning to do away with the earlier practice of making the inside of the ornaments silvered on the inside (to make them shine brightly for longer periods) Instead they simply decorated the clear glass balls with simple thin stripes in pastel colors which required much less metallic oxide pigment.
In the 1960’s, glass ornaments went out of fashion when the aluminum tree adorned with ornaments of similar shape and color became the rage. Many traditional ornaments were thrown away during this period. This is where collectors come in today.
So how can you tell if you have collectible decorations or just pretty ones that look like them? Well for one thing I say – use both but put the newer ones at the bottom of the tree – where pets and small children lurk. Their thicker glass “skins” make them more resistant to wagging tails and clutching fingers (although glass decorations of any kind might not be a great idea with little children at lower elevations. So put your decorations where you can protect them and enjoy them -at eye level.
Ok, ok…So how can you tell what you have?
The best way to tell is to look at the metal cap on top of the decorations. Most of the ones you see here that are part of my collection have tops that are a bit rusty, although not all of them are that way – I suspect it has to do with the kind of metal used for the cap.
Take out a magnifying glass and look for the country of origin or any identifying marks on the cap. Mine have names like “Japan”, “Poland”, “Made in” ….(can’t read the rest), ” Germany” and the pine cones show “East Germany” which is even more collectible.There are good books out there on Christmas decorations. (Check with Amazon). Get one that has a lot of pictures so that you can learn which decorations have the highest values and see how condition affects the price.Even if you don’t do any of the above you can usually tell how old a decoration is by its weight and its sound. The new decoration is heavier and sounds much duller in contrast to an old one. The glass at the stem of the ornament (where the cap meets the decpration) is much thicker.There are many knock offs out there and they still look good on a tree. However if you are trying to collect antique Christmas decorations it pays to know what to look for!