Tips of the Trade
Ornaments of Christmas Past
Woolworth's made a fortune selling Christmas ornaments individually and by the box. (Photo courtesy Jim Morrison, National Christmas Center)
There's a wide market online for all kinds of antique Christmas ornaments, like this heavy-glass German kugel from the early 1900s. (Photo courtesy Motka.com)
Dresden ornaments such as these are highly prized among collectors. (Photo courtesy Jim Morrison, National Christmas Center)
Hand-painted glass ornaments such as these were made primarily during the first few decades of the 20th century. (Photo courtesy Jim Morrison, National Christmas Center)
Almost anyone who grew up celebrating Christmas has nostalgic memories of an ornament that decorated their childhood tree, whether a glass ball, a handmade ornament, or the family angel unveiled each year to crown the evergreen. For many, including people who don't consider themselves collectors, a traditional ornament from Yuletides past is just the gift that would return a simpler spirit of Christmas.
To find out about antique and collectible Christmas ornaments, we spoke with Jim Morrison, founder and curator of the National Christmas Center in Paradise, Pennsylvania, the only Christmas museum in the United States, which houses a vast collection of ornaments.
Antique and collectible Christmas ornaments can rekindle the feelings of Christmas — at a range of prices
What makes collecting ornaments so inviting, Morrison says, is their diversity. "People start out buying inexpensive decorations," he says, "and then some get hooked, and go up the ladder to higher prices." Low prices have also discouraged forgers, Morrison notes, preserving an innocence in a collecting field where innocence is prized.
"Some collectors love the hand-made ornaments," says Morrison, noting that many handmade ornaments made from 1850 to 1900 can be found in the $50 to $75 range. "All through the teens and '20s there were magazine articles about people making ornaments," Morrison says. People would use scraps of what they had or could find, including fabric, yarn, thread, string and tinsel to patch together Christmas ornaments for the family tree. The most popular material among collectors, though, is cotton, which craftsmen used to make soft miniature snow children, angels, people, fruit, and Santa Claus, using the white cotton to mimic snow. These were made for sale.
Antique paper ornaments are also prized. In this category, the hand-made paper ornaments are not nearly as prized in the marketplace as the embossed and richly colored chromolithographs that reached the peak of their popularity between about 1870 and 1900. They depicted all kinds of subjects, including every stripe of creature, domestic or wild, and also patriotic figures such as Miss Liberty, Uncle Sam, and the American eagle during the Spanish-American War and World War I.
Elegance with a Price — Dresdens and Sebnitz Ornaments
Some of the most beautiful and prized ornaments ever made were embossed, hand-painted cardboard ornaments called Dresdens. The name is derived from the 10 companies in the Dresden-Leipzig-Furth area of Germany that made them from about 1880 until the beginning of World War II.
The holy grail of Christmas ornaments are the Dresdens," Morrison says, noting that their rarity, beauty, and a keen group of collectors have pushed rarer pieces into the $500 to $1,000 range, with one Dresden selling for $10,000 a few years ago. "Years ago I used to find them, but now too many people know what they are," Morrison says. "Some people will pay anything for them. If you can afford them, they're wonderful little miniatures."
Most Dresdens are a few inches long. They're embossed and painted with metallic gold or silver paint, with larger ones often painted more realistically. All were hung with a loop of thread or string. Most are animals, although angels and more elaborate (and expensive) transportation vehicles — whether boats, locomotives, or even zeppelins — were made. Since Dresdens took more time to make and never had true mass-market appeal in the United States, they were always expensive. At the turn of the 20th century, elaborate Dresdens would sell for 35 cents, compared to a fancy glass ornament that might sell for a penny or less.
Cousins to the Dresdens are Sebnitz ornaments, named after the German village where craftsmen would wrap cardboard forms in cotton, metallic foil, and in later years, plastic, perforated with small holes. The craftsmen would then embellish the forms with glass beads, fine crinkle wire, chenille, wax or miniature Dresden figures.
But today the king of Christmas ornaments is the glass ornament, which has enjoyed an ascendancy for the last 75 years or so. Until the start of World War II, the glass ornament capital of the world was a little German town called Lauscha. In the early 1800s Lauschan glassmakers blew kugels — a German word meaning sphere — to sell as window decorations, but they soon caught on as tree ornaments. They were hand-blown and made of thick glass, colored or clear, and sometimes decorated with paint. The painted kugels are hard to find because the paint has often worn off with time.
Lauscha was filled with family businesses in which men would blow kugels and women and children would decorate them and add metal caps. These glass ornaments received a big boost in 1848 when they were shown in a woodcut depicting Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their children in the English Illustrated London News and in America's Godey's Lady's Book.
Woolworth Expands the Market
Glass ornaments went from a cottage industry to an international phenomenon when Frank Woolworth, of English descent, opened a store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There, he discovered that many of the local German immigrants hung the kugels on their Christmas trees. He bought $25 worth of the new lightweight glass ornaments in 1879, Morrison says, and they sold out in two days. In the years following he bought tens of thousands of Lauschan glass balls and ornaments and sold them one at a time. He and his company made millions. "His profit might be a quarter of a cent for an ornament," Morrison notes, "but he had three thousand stores."
Many of the German glassmakers used molds to create a variety of glass ornaments, called figurals, a category that includes animals, flowers, fruits, vegetables, musical instruments, angels, Santas, and even household items such as umbrellas, shoes and lamps. "The strongest glass ornaments are the figurals made from the turn of the century to the Second World War," Morrison says. "More people are collecting those kinds of ornaments than any others." One reason they're so popular is that they're inexpensive. Although Morrison knows of one Noah's Ark that sold for thousands of dollars, "many are in the $20, $50 and $100 range," and turn up regularly at auctions.
America Enters the Market
With the outbreak of World War II, the German strong-hold on the glass ornament industry ended, and through the 1940s, Americans bought their ornaments by the box from domestic suppliers such as the Shiney Brite Company. Like the glass kugels before them, they are fragile, but they've proven the most durable in the contemporary marketplace, as the interest in new fabric, paper and cardboard ornaments has faded. Now, Morrison says, American manufacturers, in their turn, have succumbed to another manufacturer of still more inexpensive glass Christmas ornaments: the Chinese.
"A lot of the modern ornaments have imagination," Morrison says. "It's a continuation of the craft."
To learn more about Christmas antiques and collectibles in their historical context, see:
Christmas: Antiques, Decorations and Traditions, by Constance King. Antique Collectors' Club Ltd., 1999.
To learn more about antique and collectible Christmas ornaments, see:
Pictorial Guide to Christmas Ornaments and Collectibles, by George Johnson. Collectors Books, 2004.
To see real-life Christmas antique and collectible ornaments, visit:
The National Christmas Center in Paradise, Pennsylvania, or take a virtual tour of the museum online at www.nationalchristmascenter.com.
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a contributor to Antiques Roadshow Online since 1998.