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Americans fully embrace the Christmas tree and Christmas ornaments

By the early 1800s, Christmas trees lined with fruit and popcorn were becoming commonplace in many American homes. As the fourth part of ChristmasOrnaments.com’s  seven-part series on the History of Christmas ornaments showed, Americans barely had time to bask in their newfound discovery when England’s Queen Victoria abruptly raised the stakes.

She showed America – and the world – how to elevate the Christmas tree to a platform to display favored family mementoes and to highlight them with glittering flashes of light. As an exalted world figure, she knew better than anyone how nostalgia and beauty can converge to make a breathtaking statement.

History of Christmas Ornaments - doll ornament

Ornament of fabric, lace and bows

But first things first. This was America. And to a large extent, Americans were still catching their collective breath over the fragrant presence of Christmas trees in their homes.  As the early Victorians made fanciful home-made Christmas ornaments fashioned of fabric, lace and bows, a Catskill farmer by the name of Mark Carr was setting up the first Christmas tree lot in New York City in 1851. He hauled two sleds full of evergreens to the lot and, to his surprise, sold them all.

Franklin Pierce, 14th President of the United States.

Franklin Pierce, 14th President of the United States.  Image Source

A few years later, in 1856, Franklin Pierce became the first U.S. president to request the first White House Christmas tree – filling “the people’s house” with the fragrant smell of pine and giving Americans new ideas for ornamentation. Small, paper plaques and carvings of the country’s historical landmarks were said to have elicited a few yawns among observers, but at least small versions of the American flag were inspiring. One can only imagine what the elegant Queen Victoria thought of this staid production.

History of Christmas Ornaments:  Germans once again influence American Christmas ornaments

Once again, though, the strongest ornamental influence was emanating from Germany. By the mid-1800s, the glass-makers in Lauscha seized upon a novel idea: if they could produce marbles, ointment bottles and glass barometers with such proficiency, why not parlay this skill into molding glass Christmas ornaments? Glass, they reasoned, might nicely complement the golden angel, which by now had become a ubiquitous figure on German Christmas trees.

Soon, the glass blowers were making brilliantly colored ornaments in the form of toys, stars, children, saints, animals and practically any other likeness that the Germans could think of. But perhaps their most stunning creation was the glass bead garlands that rivaled anything draped on the branches of Queen Victoria’s palatial tree.

As any glass blower knows, each finished piece is somewhat different, so these early Christmas ornaments became prized possessions as well as a way for German families to express their individuality – in short, to tell their story.

Bird-Pale-Yellow

Meanwhile, the Germans in neighboring Dresden – being nothing if not competitive – were hard at work at making their own contribution to the evolution of Christmas ornaments. They turned to pressed and embossed paper to fashion one- and two-sided ornaments in a variety of shapes — mostly animals, birds, fruit and religious figures. These winsome, colorful ornaments were greeted with as much enthusiasm as “Lauscha glass” and set in motion a spirited rivalry between the two towns that lasted for decades.

Both of these innovations were enhanced by the development of artificial trees in 1880 – made in Germany in response to deforestation problems – and the first string of electric lights, introduced in 1882 by Edward H. Johnson. The lights were originally greeted with healthy skepticism – would they really work? – but fortunately for Johnson, he happened to be the business partner of a man who knew a few things about electricity: Thomas Edison.

By this time, America had taken full measure of Christmas ornaments. So had American businessman: F.W. Woolworth. As the sixth part of ChristmasOrnaments.com’s series on the History of Christmas Ornaments will show, Christmas ornaments would thereafter never be the same.