Vintage Glass Ornaments

Shiny Brite TreeNearly all of the early glass ornaments that hung on American Christmas trees were imported from Europe. However, beginning with the British Blockade of 1939, no further ornaments were imported until after World War II. The Corning Glass Company in New York stepped in and, by converting a light bulb making machine to one that made ornaments, began producing ornaments for the Christmas of 1939 and became the prime manufacturer of American ornaments.

Unsilvered WWII Glass OrnamentsWorld War II created a severe shortage of the materials necessary to manufacture Christmas ornaments, especially for silver and other metals, which were needed for the war effort.

There is a direct correlation between each year of the war and the appearance of our ornaments. The first wartime ornaments were made from glass, but were not silvered on the inside. That made them appear very dull, so very quickly they were decorated with a sprig of tinsel on the inside to make them sparkle. As the war effort intensified, even this practice was abandoned because every piece of metal was needed. Even metal caps disappeared, to be replaced with cardboard or paper tops, and eventually, the clear glass ball had only small stripes of paint for its decoration. Red was the favorite color during the 1940s, with silver and blue tying for second, and green coming in third. Shown are a clear, circa 1945 transparent ball with painted stripes and a cardboard hanger, and an earlier pink glass ball with stenciled holly leaves and a USA metal cap.

As the 1950s began, we were again importing a tremendous variety of European glass ornaments, and they were coming from several different countries. Indents were very popular, and solid color balls were being used on aluminum trees. By the mid-1950s, the shapes became even more fancy. Shiny Brite ornaments – always a staple of ornament manufacturing, continued to be made into the mid-1950s, and then disappeared. The same colors, red, silver, blue, and green, continued to be favorites through the 1950s. Pictured (right) is a tree packed with vintage Shiny Brite ornaments, lighted with C6-size vintage lights with NOMA tin reflectors, topped with a 1950 NOMA lighted star. AChristmas Village or “putz” scene adds a magical foundation to the this beautiful tree.

Many of us probably remember these glass ornaments from the ’40s and ’50s as part of our childhood. They take us back in our minds and hearts to a more uncomplicated, innocent time. Like a smell or a song, one look at a special ornament can bring all those memories back again, and reconnect us to one another and the past.

Antique Glass Ornaments

The 1920-1930’s are a time when tremendous volumes and varieties of glass Christmas ornaments were produced and imported to the USA, primarily from Germany. This period is considered by some as “the Golden Age” of Christmas ornament manufacturing. This large variety of ornaments has allowed antique Christmas collectors to focus on certain shapes or colors of ornaments to create “theme” trees. Some examples of these themes include:Antique Christmas Ornaments

  • Patriotic – decorated in red, white and blue
  • Fruit and vegetable – decorated with ornaments such as peaches, tomatoes, pears, apples, melons, etc.
  • People – representing historical figures, cartoon characters, and occupations (such as policemen)
  • Flower – decorated with different types of flower shapes, with clip-ons being common
  • Santa – containing a variety of Santa figures

Other decorating possibilities include animals, musical instruments, miniature ornaments, butterflies and transportation vehicles (cars, planes, zeppelins). In addition to the variety of shapes and colors, there are choices of silvered ornaments which reflected light, ones that are unsilvered and ones with shiny, matte, glittered or flocked (fuzzy) finish. By decorating a “theme” tree, it shows the wide diversity of ornaments available within that theme as well as making a visual feast for the eye!

Cotton Pressed Spun Ornaments

Cotton pressed (or spun) ornaments originated from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Austria and later from Japan. Artisans created spun cotton items in many forms. Popular versions were fruit and vegetables. Other examples took on holiday forms of elves, angels, and snowmen. Additionally you may find spun cotton animals and people. The most common food items were apples, pears, oranges and turnips. More difficult items include tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, strawberries, cherries, carrots and grapes. Some items are dusted with mica. A favorite display is a feather tree heavily laden with fruits and vegetables; your own special Sugar Plum Tree!

Beware of reproductions which are becoming more prominent. Recently new spun cotton ornaments wrapped in wire have appeared in Christmas shops.

Victorian Homemade Ornaments

The thrifty Pennsylvania German families of the 1870’s gave us handcrafted (or homemade) Christmas ornaments. These ornaments are highly prized today by collectors. The ladies magazines of the day such as Godey’s, Peterson’s and Demorest’s urged women to decorate their homes and trees. The December issues had many patterns for homemade ornaments. Ornaments were made with whatever materials were on hand such as decorated store boxes, chipboard with gold or silver paper, dresden trim, large and small printed scraps, tinsel, paper doilies, fabric, tissue and crepe paper. The ornaments were made in every conceivable size and shape and in every color of the rainbow. Some were made into small trinket boxes with satin tops and drawstrings embellished with small die cut scrapes. Others were just a large die cut with tinsel trim.

At the turn of the century cotton homemade ornaments came into play. Cottons were made by drawing a pattern on any rigid cardboard, which was then cut out and covered with cotton batting and outlined with foil, tinsel and embellished with printed scraps or pictures cut from magazines, trade cards or calendars.

Victorian Glass Ornaments

The glass Christmas ornaments produced during the Victorian era reflected the opulent decorating style of that time. The most common glass ornament types were thin blown glass ornaments, kugels and wire-wrapped glass ornaments.

The Victorian era saw the introduction of thin blown glass ornaments. An indication of these early ornaments is the unique cap that was glued onto the ornament pike. The production of thin blown glass ornaments exploded in volume following the victorian era.

Kugels are heavy blown glass ornaments with thick walls, silvered interiors and brass caps. Kugels come in a variety of shapes and colors. These large, beautifully hued ornaments have a wonderful reflective quality and are a stunning addition to any tree.

Victorian wire-wrapped glass ornaments range in size from a few inches tall to over 12″ tall. They were wrapped in silver wire which reflected the light. They were further embellished with fabric and metal trim making them exquisite decorations for the tree.

Unsilvered WWII Paper Cap Ornaments

In 1939 England was at war with Nazi-controlled Germany and the British Navy set up blockades that effectively stopped any exports from war-torn Europe reaching the United States of America. Many Americans found their first wartime shortage was to be Christmas decorations. Up to this point, most of the Christmas decorations used by Americans came from Germany, Czechoslovakia or Japan.

To cover this shortage, the Corning Glass Company started to produce round clear glass balls that were blown automatically by machine rather than hand blown by mouth as their European counterparts had been. Corning produced these new American made ornaments 24 hours a day and by 1944 they were making 40 million round glass ornaments per year. Corning then sold these glass blanks to other companies such as K & W Glass Works, Marks Brothers, and Shiny Brite, who in turn decorated, capped, boxed and resold the finished Christmas ornaments to retail stores nationwide.

During the early years of World War II the new American made Christmas ornaments did not look all that different from those still being produced today. From 1939 through 1941 the ornaments were shiny, thanks to being coated on their interior with a silver nitrate solution. These shiny glass balls were often decorated with painted stripes and topped with a metal cap embossed with “Made in the US of A”.

With The United States joining in the war in 1941, wartime shortages and restrictions of materials started to plague the new American glass ornament industry. The silver nitrate solution was declared to be “nonessential” by the War Production Board and the manufacturing of it was stopped. By 1942 American ornaments were being produced without their shiny look. To compensate, some companies inserted a sprig of shiny silver colored tinsel inside the ornament to give it the familiar sparkle that the public was used to. Soon, even the silver tinsel was used up and the ornaments were left without any inside decoration. Around 1943 all metal was needed for the war effort and the ornament industry could no longer produce metal caps for their glass decorations. Again the companies became creative and started using caps made out of either cardboard or paper and with a piece of cord in place of a metal hanging hook. Some companies used a type of cardboard hanging hook that fastened inside the ball. Other decorating companies were forced to use a little piece of wood stuck sideways in the neck of the ball, with a cord tied to it.

Finally, with the end of World War II in 1945, wartime restrictions on materials were relaxed and the more standard Christmas tree ornaments were again being produced in 1946, with the phrase “Made in the USA” embossed on the metal cap. Collecting paper capped ornaments does have advantages. They are easy to date as to years of production, are still easy to locate and are rather affordable. They are also a piece of American history from a time of shortages, hardships, and ingenuity.