Christmas ornaments are available in a stunning array of materials, from the precious to the pedestrian, and ever since the first ornament was hung on the first tree, decorating styles have been subject to the whirlwind whims of fashion. Here’s a brief history of collectible ornaments both old and new, and what you can expect to pay to hang them on your tree.
History of Christmas Ornaments
The earliest ornaments were edible – fruits, cookies and other sweets that were meant to be eaten. Later, people began adorning their trees with ornaments made of nuts, popcorn and cranberries, and putting treats in cornucopia shaped, lithographed paper containers. The majority of early ornaments were homemade, but these were augmented by manufactured ornaments in tinsel and glass.
A machine for making tinsel was invented in 1610 in Germany, and the wealthy decorated their trees with the shimmering stands made of real silver. Real silver tinsel was in use until the 20th century, when it was replaced with a paper or plastic version.
Glass ornaments have been around since glassblowers in Lauscha, Germany began making them specifically for Christmas trees in the 16th century. Originally, glass ornaments were ball shaped, but in the tradition of hanging fruits & nuts on the tree, the glass balls evolved into the shapes of edible treats, including the pickle.
Victorian Glass Ornaments
Victorians embraced the industrial age in their choice of ornaments as well as everything else, and store bought soon replace homemade ones. Most of the ornaments popular during this time were made in Germany (who produced most of the world’s ornaments until after WWII). Early glass ornaments were simple, decorated balls, but soon glass ornaments in the shape of animals, vegetables, and Christmas icons became available. Glass balls in assorted shapes wrapped in crimped wire were popular. Common and simple examples sell for as little as $40, but more complex, rare, and fragile examples cost hundreds.
Victorian Paper and Scrap Ornaments
Other Victorian ornaments were made of spun glass, paper, scrap, wax or cotton, particularly in the shape of children and angels. Some of these had cotton bodies and bisque heads, or die-cut, embossed cardboard heads and scrap bodies. Tinsel and scrap and cardboard and cotton examples sell for $10-50, again based on subject, rarity, and condition.
Vintage Ornaments-Shiny Bright
In the 1930’s, department stores began selling boxed sets of ornaments, most notably by the Shiny Bright Company. Shiny Bright was the brainchild of entrepreneur Max Eckhardt and the Corning Glass company whose aim was a large share of the American Market. Shiny Bright ornaments were inexpensive and proved popular with depression weary American decorators.
Authentic Shiny Bright ornaments in excellent condition in original boxes can bring $25 for a box of 6 with applied snow scenes to $100 for a mixed a box of 12, with half figurals and half ornaments with indentations. Care should be taken when purchasing, as these are beginning to be reproduced.
Radko and Hallmark Ornaments
There are many contemporary makers of ornaments, but Hallmark and Radko are two of the most popular. In the early 1980’s Christopher Radko worked with glassmakers in Poland to create replacements for heirloom family ornaments shattered in a freak Christmas tree accident. Friends and family members asked for copies and the company was born. Today, old ornaments are retired, and new ones are issued each year. Radko ornaments are hand-blown by European glass artisans, then hand decorated, so no two are exactly alike. Early Radko ornaments fetch anywhere between $15-100 depending on subject and popularity.