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.