Collecting Christmas Ornaments

The little glass balls and figures have a big sentimental hold on collectors

By Leigh Elmore

When it comes to Christmas collectibles, the most popular item in most collections is the Christmas tree ornament in all its forms. From antique glass kugels from Germany to the latest Hallmark Keepsake ornament, boxes and boxes of the small figures are stored away in attics for most of the year awaiting their annual celebration during the last month of the year.

A "scrap" paper ornament of a girl's face dates from the early 20th century. (Lorraine Elmore collection)

Just how did the now ubiquitous hobby get started. The history goes back a long way.

"We call them Christmas Trees, but the decorative evergreen long pre-dates the celebration of Christmas," according to Rachel Gould, writing for the website Culture Trip." Evidence suggests that the practice of adorning the home with evergreen boughs during the winter solstice dates as far back as the ancient Egyptians. The comforting presence of evergreen life offered hope during winter's cold days and long nights, serving a similar purpose in the various pagan winter solstice rituals of the Druids, Romans, and Vikings," she stated.

The modern Christmas tree tradition is thought to have originated in 16th century Germany, where small evergreen trees were decorated with the likes of candles, apples, nuts, and berries as "Paradise trees". Over time, devout Christians integrated these decorated trees into their homes during the holiday season. The tradition, which became a Christian ritual, began to spread across Europe.

A tabletop "feather tree" used for the best display of an ornament collection. (Lorraine Elmore collection)

German immigrants brought this practice to America in the 18th and 19th centuries, where it was promptly rejected by Puritanical religious groups for its historically pagan connotations, according to Gould. While it took a while to catch on, small communities of German-born settlers documented the continuation of this practice as early as the mid-1700s.

In the late 1840s, a published depiction of the favorable Queen Victoria celebrating Christmas with her German-born husband, Prince Albert, and their family around a decorated evergreen tree transformed the practice into a fashionable one that wealthy Americans soon rushed to adopt. In short order, local businesses caught on to the ornament's commercial potential.

By the 1890s, Woolworth's Department Store in the United States was selling $25 million in German-imported ornaments made of lead and hand-blown glass. As time went on, tree decorations became increasingly artful, incorporating new materials such as tinsel, silk and wool. Once the premiere manufacturer of handmade ornaments, Germany was suddenly competing with Japanese and Eastern European mass-production as the Christmas bauble became a globalized commercial venture. By the mid-1930s, more than 250,000 ornaments were imported to the United States.

One of this year's Hallmark Keepsake ornaments for sale for $15.99. (photo courtesy Hallmark.com)

In 1973, Hallmark introduced its "Keepsake" ornaments, which afforded these decorations collectible value. The first collection consisted of glass baubles and little yarn figures, and each successive line of limited-edition ornaments has been unique to the year.
Today, the Christmas tree has shed most of its religious significance. Having become a fully integrated cross-cultural winter tradition, families of all faiths around the world await that beloved time of year when they can dust off their decorations once more.
Collectors delight in the various forms and materials from which ornaments are made and each genre has its devotees.

Glass kugels

A group of blue and green kugels that recently sold on iCollector.com for $500. (photo courtesy iCollector.com)

Kugels are the earliest form of glass Christmas decorations.

"The predecessors of these beloved Victorian Christmas ornaments began in an unsilvered form that were hung in windows to ward off evil spirits or witches, a tradition dating back to the 17th century in England and spreading to the colonies in America in the 18th century," said Joe Meyers of the Golden Glow.com website.

He notes that eventually, in the 1850s when silvered glass came into vogue, these same "witch balls" were manufactured with a silver lining making them reflective and soon found a new purpose as Christmas ornaments, hung both from the ceiling and, in smaller versions, on the tree.

"The kugel, German for ball or sphere was born," Meyers said. "And from a collector's standpoint, it's all about color and shape combinations. With kugels the color is in the glass, rarely painted on." He noted that the most rare the colors would be: gold, yellow-green, cobalt, blue and pinkish red being fairly plentiful followed by the less common colors including the darker greens, copper/bronze, light blue before moving to the most rare spectrum of deep red, burgundy, orange and the coveted amethyst.

Most kugels originated in Germany and France, Meyers noted, "with kugels it's all about knowing the shape/color combinations." Balls are the most common, but an amethyst colored ball would make it one of the rarest pieces. Grapes are the next most common shape. They were blown in many different molded patterns with the rarest being red and amethyst grapes.
"Free blown shapes like eggs, pears and tear drops are more desirable, especially in rarer colors like red and amethyst. Some eggs and balls were blown in a ribbed design, which are highly sought-after. Rare and hard-to-find shapes include artichokes, berry clusters, pinecones and other fruit shapes."

The silvered linings are starting to break down on many kugels due to their age. When collecting kugels, try to avoid pieces where the lining has disintegrated. "On rare pieces collectors will often look the other way if the lining is in bad shape," Meyers said, "but the reality is that if you try to sell the piece, you may not be able to get a good price with a bad lining.
"Kugels have a luster, weight and aged patina that many old Christmas ornaments just can't match," Meyers said. "They add sparkle and magic to any collection and will bring joy to you and generations of your family to come."

 

Dresdens

An antique glass clip-on bird perches near the top of the tabletop tree.
(Lorraine Elmore collection)

Dresden ornaments are some of the most charming and beautiful decorations ever manufactured for the Christmas tree. Taking their name from the Dresden-Leipzig area of Germany where they were originally made, these little embossed cardboard creations come in a seemingly endless variety of shapes: suns, moons, fish, every imaginable animal, including exotic creatures such as polar bears, storks, eagles, peacocks and alligators. There were miniature sailboats and ocean liners, an entire orchestra of musical instruments, sleighs, coaches pulled by horses – practically anything imaginable.

Most "Dresdens" were only two to three inches in size and were gilded or silvered, although some were hand painted. Dresdens were made primarily between 1880 and 1910. They were manufactured using cardboard, dampened to make it flexible. It was then pressed in a stamping die. One ornament was often made of several pieces which, when dry, were taken home by workers and assembled.

Despite the fact that many thousands were produced, relatively few original Dresdens remain today, making them highly prized collectibles.

 

Antique glass ornaments

A glass Santa from early 20th century. (Lorraine Elmore collection)

The 1920s-'30s are a time when tremendous volumes and varieties of glass Christmas ornaments were produced and imported to the United States, primarily from Germany. This period is considered by many 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 theme trees include:

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 firefighters).
Flower – decorated with different types of flower shapes, with clip-ons being common
Santa – using a variety of Santa figures
Other decorating possibilities include animals, musical instruments, miniature ornaments, butterflies and vehicles such as cars, planes and zeppelins. In addition to the variety of shapes and colors, there are choices of silvered ornaments that reflect light, others that are unsilvered and some with shiny, matte, glittered or flocked finish.

 

Vintage glass ornaments

A box of Shiny Brite ornaments still in the original box, which adds to their value. (photo courtesy Pinterest)

Nearly all of the early glass ornaments that hung on American Christmas trees were imported from Europe. However, with the onset of World War II, the importation ceased for the duration of the war.
The Corning Glass Co. of New York stepped in and, by converting a light bulb making machine to one that made ornaments, Corning began producing ornaments for the Christmas of 1939 and became the prime manufacturer of American ornaments. World 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.

As the 1950s began, the U.S. was again importing a tremendous variety of European glass ornaments, coming from several different countries. Solid color balls were popular for use on aluminum Christmas trees. By mid-decade the shapes were becoming fancier. Shiny Brite ornaments – always a staple of ornament manufacturing, continued to be made into the 1950s and then disappeared. The colors red, silver, blue and green continued to be the most popular colors.

 

What about value?

A little red and white glass house nestles in the interior of the tabletop tree. (Lorraine Elmore collection)

When it comes to glass Christmas ornaments the greatest value usually lies in figurals, according to Pamela Wiggins, writing for The Spruce Crafts website.

"These are clever ornaments shaped like people or things, as opposed to plain old glass balls," she states.

She advises that condition is a prime indicator of value. "Those with little to no paint loss, all original components and glass in all the right places will always bring higher value than less stellar examples." Wiggins notes that ornaments were used year after year on holiday trees around the turn of the last century on into the 1920s, so they rarely come to market in pristine condition now. When they do, they're worth a good bit of cash to collectors.

Wiggins maintains that original German kugels remain the most valuable to collectors. "It's said that these were first sold in America at Woolworth's variety stores in the 1880s. Figural examples shaped like clusters of grapes in rare colors like red or amber can be worth more than $1,000 each. Egg-shaped kugels might sell for $500-$800 each and round balls can be found for much less in common colors."

If you're looking to outfit a vintage style tree without spending a small fortune, there are some alternatives. Glass ball ornaments that don't date back nearly as far as kugels will be the least expensive and the easiest to find. For instance, an entire box of stenciled Shiny Brite ornaments dating to the 1940s through the 1960s in excellent condition might sell for $50. One at a time you might pay $5 to $10 apiece.


Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com.

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