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History of Christmas Ornaments:  Woolworth’s bets the store – and wins – on glass Christmas ornaments

It may be difficult to believe, but Christmas traditions unique to one country eventually reached the shores of other countries long before the Internet fused the world together into a wide, cohesive web. It just took a lot longer.

Case in point: the custom of decorating Christmas trees. As ChristmasOrnaments.com’s seven-part series has shown, the United States took many of its decorating cues from the dainty elegance of Queen Victoria in England.

Even in the 1800s, America was a big, expansive place, with regions of the country staunchly divided by their customs and traditions. German immigrants who lived in New York, for example, were proud of the glass Christmas ornaments formed in the shape of toys, stars, children, saints, animals and bead garlands – mostly made in the German town of Lauscha. The ornaments added a glittering dimension to the immigrants’ Christmas trees, and their neighbors eagerly snatched up as many extra glass ornaments that came by way of overseas packages.

Woolworth_Logo.svg

Depending on the version of the story, either one or several German businessmen brought the beautiful glass Christmas ornaments to the attention of retailer F.W. Woolworth. He instantly “got” their allure and began importing the ornaments to America, en masse, to his chain of five and dime stores.

By 1890, Woolworth reportedly was selling $25 million worth of the ornaments – a breathtaking coup considering that, back in his day, the store’s products literally sold for a nickel or a dime apiece.

His timing also proved fortuitous, for World War I spawned a backlash against many German products, and not just Christmas ornaments. (This is when the frankfurter became known as the hot dog and “sauerkraut” became “cabbage.”)Hot-Dog-Christmas-Ornament

History of Christmas Ornaments:  Corning launches line of glass Christmas ornaments, American style

Anti-German sentiment continued to intensify so that by the time World War II broke out in 1939, one American businessman saw the wisdom in indulging Americans’ love of Christmas ornaments while reducing the country’s reliance on German imports. Max Eckhardt joined forces with Woolworth’s to approach the Corning Company in New York about manufacturing glass ornaments, stateside.

History of Christmas Ornaments - Glass Ball

By 1940, Corning was producing about 300,000 glass Christmas ornaments a day and shipping them to other companies to decorate. The most vested partner? Max Eckhardt, of course, who by now had established a company called Shiny Brite. The ornaments were lacquered by machine on the outside and then decorated by hand so that they would remain – literally — shiny and bright.

Perhaps the company’s greatest contribution  was the colored glass ball – later produced in the same shape but with more inexpensive materials, including paper, plastic and metal. (Either way, the ornamental balls were easily hung from Christmas trees all over America with greater ease thanks to the invention of the metal ornament hook, in 1892.)

All the while, Woolworth’s remained a mighty and tempting target for competing discount and department stores, such as Kresge, Neisner’s, Macy’s, Gimbel’s and Marshall Field’s. They smartly began producing “commemorative” ornaments to knock the nation’s largest seller of Christmas ornaments off its pedestal.

Betty Boop Christmas Ornament

The more complex ornaments became, it seemed the more ardently Americans sought after them. A process known as “injection molding,” for example, allowed for more reflective indentations in glass and even plastic. Traditional glass blowers could not compete with the more intricate, detailed results of this process, and ornaments of movie stars, cartoon characters and cars began to appear on American Christmas trees.

Looking back on the history of Christmas ornaments in America, this period may well have been the most exciting chapter of all. But as ChristmasOrnaments.com’s series will show in its final part, the evolution was hardly over.