COLLECTING VINTAGE CHRISTMAS ORNAMENTS
In the early years of our marriage I bought ornaments for our first Christmas trees; most were the Shiny Brite brand. In 1968 our first daughter was born and I decided to start a collection for her. On Christmas Eve, I was leafing through a December magazine when I read about one reader’s idea of collecting one ornament a year for her children and then giving each child their collection when they left home. I thought what a wonderful way to build a memory! On our way to spend Christmas with my husband’s family, I insisted on stopping at the two main department stores to search for that first ornament. Finally, I was able to find a beautiful gold bell and the collection was begun. Through the years I kept a diary of the collections … grandmothers and friends also added to the collection. After a few years our tree was filled with these beautiful collections and I made the big mistake of selling all my early Shiny Brite ornaments in a garage sale for $1.00 a box! When the girls all left home they took their collections and now fifty years later they still hang on their trees. However, our tree was decidedly bare!
I had been collecting vintage dishes and books for quite a while but I had been very slow to warm up to collecting vintage Christmas ornaments. Somehow they just looked old and faded but they were reminiscent of the 1950s trees of my childhood. Once I started collecting old ornaments and began to learn about their history, I was hooked.
In the 1920s and 1930s most glass Christmas ornaments were imported from Germany and Poland. These were hand blown and hand painted. In the 1920s German Max Eckardt and his brother immigrated to America and opened sales and import offices in New York. In the late 1930s the Eckardt brothers began to worry about how the growing threat of war with Germany might impact their ornament business. They along with representatives from Woolworth’s (large five and dime store owners) decided to approach Corning Glass of New York to develop manufactured glass ornaments. Corning at the time was the prime maker of light bulbs and it was with this technology that they were able to produce clear glass bulbs for decorating by the Eckhardt group and sale in Woolworth stores. They were able, at their height, to produce 300,000 a day as compared to 600 a day from Germany and eventually to become the world’s largest producer of glass Christmas ornaments. However, when war with Germany began, the silver used in ornament decoration became unavailable and the bulbs remained clear with very little decoration. Even the previously metal caps became paper and were hung with string or yarn. Today the clear ornaments of the war years are highly prized. Most of these have had their caps replaced with metal caps but rarely one with a paper cap is found.
The 1940s and 1950s were the heyday of the Shiny Brites. Many beautiful shapes and sizes were made. There are many ornaments shaped like bells, pine cones, lanterns, icicles, and UFOs. There are beautiful spire ornaments for the tree top and ornaments with very fragile indents. Some ornaments were trimmed with mica or wire mesh; some were stenciled or flocked. There are several types of fluted metal tops marked Shiny Brite, Made in the USA. The boxes have also evolved over time and are now almost as valuable as the ornaments. Collections of metal ornament tops and empty ornament boxes are sold as well as ornaments. Unfortunately, many sellers use the brand name Shiny Brite as if it were a generic name for any glass ornament. When collecting also be aware that Shiny Brite caps may have been placed on ornaments that are not Shiny Brite.
Care for the collection is very important because the ornaments are extremely fragile. Never use water or liquid to try to clean an ornament because the paints are water based and will rub off … a fact I learned the hard way! Just a gentle dusting is all that is needed.
In the 1960s Shiny Brites continued to be made, but plastic became popular and the market for glass waned. Shiny Brite also produced numerous plastic Christmas items. I bought one of my favorites for my girls … Santa with a sleigh and reindeer. Shiny Brite ceased production in 1970.
Most of my vintage ornaments are the Shiny Brite brand and they and their boxes are very valuable now. Some of my boxes that are marked 29 cents now sell for $25.00! Most of my ornaments have been collected one or two at a time at antique stores. Occasionally I have collected some in boxes or bought a few just to get the box! Over 25 years I have collected so many that now I have a special tree just for the vintage ornaments. Last year I decided to make my ornament of the year to our daughters a pick from the vintage tree!