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Christmas Ornaments American Style: Traditional and Innovative 20th and 21st Century Decorations

Published by Josefina Piekos

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Americans were used to purchasing Christmas tree ornaments made in Germany until the 1930s. However with signs that WWII was fast approaching, American business men began looking for sources in the United States to fulfill the demand.

Christmas Tree Ornaments of the 1940s

The Corning Company was persuaded to look for a way to make glass tree ornaments in America. It already had a machine that made light bulbs out of ribbons of glass. It was converted into one that could successfully turn out glass ornaments. Early in 1940, Corning was making 300,000 ornaments a day. This could be compared with the 600 a day that could be made by craftsmen in Germany.

The ornaments made by Corning were sent to other companies for lacquering and decoration including that of The Shiney Bright company owned by Max Eckhardt. His company lacquered the ornaments by machine but did the decorating by hand. Although originally silvered on the inside so they would remain “shiney bright” for long periods. Because of a shortage of materials, the clear glass balls were decorated with thin strips of pastel colors. Corning figured out a way to produce a greater variety of shapes and sizes that did not need scarce war materials such as metallic oxide.

Christmas Tree Ornament Stores in the 1950s

During the 1950s, Christmas tree ornaments and decorations could be found at what was then called, “Five-and-Dime” stores, among them F. W. Woolworth, Kresge and Neisner. The stores were large enough to purchase ornaments in great quantities and carry a large selection and variety. The stores sold the ornaments for as little as a dime or twenty cents each. Stores like Macy’s, Gimbel’s, Marshall Field, Wanamakers, and the Dixie Store, carried those which were limited commemorative ornaments for each year.

Ornament Buying as a Holiday Event

Many families would make purchasing ornaments an eventful day, going to the big department stores to see the “Big Tree” with its hundred of ornaments, sometimes carrying out the theme of Candyland, Santa’s Workshop, or Teddy Bears on Parade. At Marshall Fields, the tree would be the main feature in the elegant dining room.

Christmas Tree Ornaments Become More Complex

Using a process called injection molding allowed for shapes previously not known to traditional glass blowers. It could create intricate figures or whole scenes in plastic and encase them in a pastel-tinted outer shell.

Some decorations had small Christmas villages to put under the tree, patterned after an idealized London of Dicken’s time. Others would include miniature churches, stores and other structures. There were also buildings that were on patches of snow-covered ground, often with trees and other vegetation on them. Buildings could be illuminated by Christmas lights. Among the other choices were elves and other forest creatures with soft, fuzzy bodies and cute little faces, snowmen, Santas and reindeer.

Christmas Tree Ornaments in the 1950s

During the 1950s. the aluminum trees began to make their appearance, some having ornaments already on them. It was thought these were safer than the traditional fresh evergreen because of being fire-proof and easier to take care of, not needing water added to it every day.

Christmas Tree Ornaments in the 1970s to Today

As Christmas became more commercialized , Hallmark Card Company began producing its Keepsake Collection in 1973. In time, Hallmark would create 3,000 limited edition Keepsakes alone. McDonalds and other national chains began using promotional ornaments which could become collectors items.

During this time there were Christopher Radko ornaments and the Franklin Mint had their own brand of ornaments and decorations. Characters from television and movies, cartoons and other commercial ornaments, part of the pop culture, also appeared.

Some companies make ornaments that are also effective warning devices should the tree catch on fire. These have Underwriter’s label on the product itself, not on the packaging or literature to assure that safety guidelines have been followed. There are also musical trees that have computer microchips in them.

Personalized Christmas Tree Ornaments

Today personalized Christmas tree ornaments are available, made by craftsmen and distributed by companies such as the Ornament Shop. The artisans can range from hill country craftsmen to entire companies that specialize in nothing but personalized ornaments. These sometimes have the names of family members on one ornament or individual ones with only one name that can be made to order.

The future creativity of artisans and craftspeople will continue to bring innovative and unusual Christmas tree decorations to America and to be exported to the rest of the world.

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