Holly was used for Festive Days decorations, likely as a tradition carried over from the Roman use of the plan for winter solstice celebrations. Other pagan traditions added fir trees and mistletoes to homes as a means to bring life and well wishes to the times; however, ornaments and decorative elements were not used the early Middle Ages.
Those in Scandinavia were known to make stars, crowns, angels, and manger scenes from straw, first, in order to revere pagan gods and then later on to honor their newly-found Christian faith. These crudely-made items from the Dark Ages were likely the first ornaments to define modern-day Christmas themes.
Meanwhile those in Germany and Italy began working the same type of images in wood. They began with small wooden triangular-shaped frames that included 5-6 shelves to hold trinkets, wooden carvings, etc. They were called “litchstocks” in Germany and “ceppos” in Italy. Their popularity continues to modern times, but nowadays, the shelves reflect a manager scene with the baby Jesus on the top shelf and as star on the point of the triangle.
These small nativity scenes led to larger displays, used to adorn tables and treasured as family heirlooms. Most people add to them with a new piece each year.
By the Reformation, Christmas trees were commonly found in German homes. They were originally decorated with red apples. Later, candles and stringed popcorn, cookies, candy canes, and small toys were added. By the 1850s, strings of paper chains and homemade drawings became more commonplace. These traditions soon spread from the home place to the marketplace.
Limbs cut from the tree brought home to decorate were used in wreaths and garlands. Soon woodmen began to make wreaths trimmed with small “ornaments” to be sold to waiting patrons. The need for trimmings for the trees and wreaths open a wider market for the production of ornaments.
In the 1860s, a German company, Lauscha, was the first to make garlands of glass beads. (By the way, Lauscha is also famous for making glass eyes for medical use.) The Christmas tree decoration products are still made from moulds over 100 years old. The transparent birds, cones, fruits, and Santa Clauses are silver-plated. lacquered and painted a variety of colors. The company also made tine figures, which could be hung on the tree. Glass ornaments followed. Artisans created these glass baubles in the glass-blowing tradition, inserting the tube into a clay mold and then blowing air into the tube to expand the shape into the final form. Initially, these molds were only in the shape of nuts and fruits.
After the glass shape was cool, a silver nitrate solution was swirled in the center. Justus von Liebig developed this technique in the 1850s. This made the ornament appear to glow. The next step was to hand paint the ornament and topped with a metal cap. Highly popular in Germany, glass ornaments became all the rage in England during the reign of Queen Victoria. In the 1860s, Lauscha also shipped the ornaments to the United States.
The first American glass ornaments were made by William DeMuth in New York in the early 1870s. Woolworth’s Department Store advertised the sale of Lauscha ornaments in 1880. By 1910, Frank W. Woolworth string of five-and-dimes had spread from coast to coast. Woolworth, known fro his faith, was the first employer to offer his workers Christmas bonuses. He is often thought of as the stimulus for Christmas commercialism. By the beginning of the 20th Century, Woolworth imported more than 200,000 glass ornaments for its stores. Because they purchased the items in bulk, Woolworth’s could sell the ornaments for a dime. Topping $25 million dollars in sales in 1900 for Woolworth’s alone, glass ornaments were now available to the middle and lower social classes.
Unique ornaments were created to tempt customers, who generally only bought one or two new items each year.
Dresden, another German company, developed a new innovation in Christmas ornaments: fiberboard ornaments, which were handmade, double sided, embossed, and die cut. They were normally made of gold and silver metallic paper. These were more practical for storage purposes and to alleviate breakage problems; yet, glass ornaments remained the industry standard.
By the 1890’s homemade decorations had fallen out of style. Christmas was suddenly a commercial juggernaut. The moulds included nearly every shape envisioned. With the invention of tree lights, the “Christmas” industry expanded further in locale and in impact.
During World War I, American distributors refused to import items from a German country; therefore, American companies sprang up to fill the need. New themes and colors, which appealed to the consumers, were added to the line, and much remained the same until 1937, when Max Eckardt, an importer of German ornaments began his own glass company, Shiney Brite Company, in conjunction with Bill Thompson of F.W. Woolworth. Eckardt had anticipated the upcoming World War II. The Shiney Brite Company joined with Corning Glass Company to make high-quality, inexpensive, mass-marketed machine-blown glass ornaments.
Corning modified its glass ribbon machine, designed to make light bulbs by the thousands. Early in December 1939, the first 235,000 Corning-blown and machine-lacquered ornaments were shipped to Woolworth’s
In 1940, 300,000 ornaments were made. Corning wisely supplied other stores with plain glass ornaments for decoration. Eckardt built a decorating plant in New Jersey, where the glass balls were silvered, lacquered, and decorated by hand. WWII eventually made if difficult to reliably acquire the lacquer or the silver for decorating. The metal caps were replaced by cardboard ones. Eckardt changed with the times. His plant decorated clear glass balls with thin painted stripes in pastel colors. After WWII, Shiney Brite became the largest ornament company in the world.
The development of plastics and new metals during the war years changed Christmas decorations in the 1950s. This allowed Christmas decorations to move from the home to the outdoors, especially people’s yards. By the late 1960s whole neighborhoods were lighted for the holidays. I recall as a child driving from neighborhood to neighborhood to view the wonderful displays of angels and Santas and flashing lights galore. A new facet of the Christmas decoration industry was born.