Let's Get Ornamental

From Victorian-era handblown glass stars to atomic-age thermoplastic reindeer, vintage ornaments are prized for their whimsy and unique charm. These classic motifs tell a rich story of Christmas past.

By Catherine Hong
Photos by Kate Mathis
Above Image | In the States, World War II metal shortages inspired homemade foil-covered ornaments. The cutout windows of this 1930s celluloid house (top row, center) allow tree lights to shine through.

Cute as a button

This cardboard snowman, possibly intended for placement under a tree, was one of many traditional ornaments made in Japan in the 1950s. “They were first brought to America in the 19th century,” says Karch. “At that time, F. W. Woolworth had great success with German factories creating them for his stores in the States.” With his monocle and pipe-cleaner mustache, this dapper fellow has personality to spare.

A twinkle in time

Think of star and snowflake ornaments as jewelry for your tree. Spiky versions in paper or clear plastic add graphic punch, while shimmery specimens made of mercury glass, tin, or tinsel reflect light and impart shine. “Early trees were, of course, lit with candles,” says Fritz Karch, an antiques dealer based in Hopewell, New Jersey, and an avid collector of ornaments, who curated this story. “The effect of flickering light on a beveled metal ornament would have been quite beautiful.”

Homes for the holiday

The German-American custom of the putz—the miniature Christmas village under the tree, typically including a manger scene—gave rise to the tradition of trimming the tree itself with tiny replicas of cottages, churches, and shops made from handblown glass, plastic, and paper. “When it comes to cardboard cottages, the ones with little trees still attached are most sought after,” says Karch. “They're the first things to break off.”

Sleigh me

It's not all about Rudolph. The famous red-nosed charmer—the creation of a copywriter for Montgomery Ward & Co.—didn't prance onto the holiday scene until 1939. The earliest reference to Santa's singular mode of travel actually dates to 1821, when an anonymous New York illustrator depicted “Old Santeclaus” riding in a sleigh, pulled by a single reindeer.

Joyful noise

“Instruments are classic emblems of Christmas festivities,” says Karch. “Think of church bells, handbells, and general merrymaking.” German glass artisans flaunted their craftsmanship with dainty versions that rang and tiny horns that could be blown. Later styles, made from a range of materials including glass and plastic, were more ornamental than functional—and included the occasional saxophone.

A feast for the eyes

The very earliest Christmas ornaments? Fresh fruit. The practice dates back to the 14th century, when apples were hung on evergreen trees to serve as props for the miracle plays presented in churches on December 24. “For many early Americans, hanging citrus on a Christmas tree would have been an extra-special treat,” says Karch. The cornucopia of faux produce created for the holidays eventually grew to include colorful berries, beets, and mushrooms made of cotton batting, glass, and plastic.