Glass from Christmas Past

Pages from a 1936 trade catalog, Erwin Geyer, Lauscha, Germany (bib no. 101943), illustrating ornaments, as well as other decorative items for Christmas.

Pages from a 1936 trade catalog, Erwin Geyer, Lauscha, Germany (bib no. 101943), illustrating ornaments, as well as other decorative items for Christmas.

For many, ‘tis the season to haul boxes of ornaments, lights, and prickly plastic wreaths with dusty bows out of the attic. And for glass aficionados, many of those ornament boxes contain collectible antique ornaments, one-of-a-kind hand-blown creations from studio glass artists, or, perhaps, ornaments made by someone in your family at The Corning Museum of Glass Studio.

Have you ever wondered about the history of those dusty ornaments … the ones handed down to you from generations past or the ornaments you picked up in an antique shop or at a flea market on impulse?

Once you begin to explore the history of Christmas decorations, you will quickly become hooked. The traditions of Christmas, and their social history, are chock-full of questions, mysteries, and theories. Christmas festivities, prior to Victorian times, were often more about wassailing (that is, drinking a lot of alcoholic beverages!) than about stockings on the hearth, joy to the world, and the spirit of giving.

The precise history of Christmas tree decorations is also somewhat obscured, though it is known that early Christmas trees were decorated with fruits and nuts, decorations which might have inspired 19th century German glassmakers to create the first glass ornaments in imitation of apples or oranges. Glassmakers in Lauscha, Germany, originally made these glass spheres to hang in the window, but they soon became common tree decorations. In the United States, in the 1880s, the giant department store, Woolworth’s, began selling millions of dollars worth of German-made ornaments to Americans eager to bedeck their trees.

Germany dominated the commercial market into the 20th century, although during the early 1900s Japan and Czechoslovakia began producing ornaments as well. When World War II began in 1939, though, Germany was knocked out of the ornament market. A company called Corning Glass Works stepped in to supply the demand for glass ornaments, substituting the hand-worked processes of the German glass makers for a mechanized process made possible by the Ribbon Machine. This machine, built in 1926, produced 2,000 light bulbs per minute and, as it turns out, about 300,000 Christmas ornaments per day. Corning Glass Works sold ornaments to the Shiny Brite company for further decoration and distribution, as well as a number of ornaments directly to stores such as Woolworth’s and the Chicago-based Butler Bros.

According to a Life magazine article, from December 9, 1940, Corning Glass Works expected to produce 40,000,000 ornaments by the end of that year and supply 100 percent of the domestic market for ornaments. CGW made not only the traditional sphere-shaped ornament, but also bells, lanterns, acorns, and other shapes.

The Rakow Research Library has a variety of materials to help you research your own collection of Christmas ornaments, whether they are hand-painted German ornaments from 1900 or a box of Shiny Brites from the 1950s. We have trade catalogs illustrating a company’s wares, department store catalogs, advertisements, a variety of published books on the history of Christmas traditions and price guides and overviews of the Christmas collectibles market. For more information about our library collection, give us a jingle!

The Juliette K. and Leonard S. Rakow Research Library is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Telephone: 607.438.5300 | Email (general inquiries): [email protected]

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As manager of the Rakow Library’s public services team, Regan Brumagen coordinates reference, instruction, and outreach for the library and provides leadership in the assessment of user needs and services. Before joining the Museum staff in 2004, Brumagen worked as a reference librarian and instruction coordinator at several academic libraries. She received an M.A. in English and an M.L.S Library Science from the University of Kentucky. Currently, Regan is a member of several American Library Association divisions and has served on numerous committees for these divisions during her career.

17 comments » Write a comment

  1. I have a dragon”glass lace” christmas ornamant and a few more and was wondering about collecting, valueing etc. Is there a book or site that I can look at?

  2. Dear Bret: I will e-mail you a list of books and articles on collecting and valuing Christmas Ornaments. Many of these will be available at your local public library or through their interlibrary loan dept. Let me know if you have questions!

  3. Hello! I am passionate about vintage Shiny Brite ornaments, and their connection to upstate New York makes me love them all the more. Could you send me the list of articles and books that you have on the topic (Shiny Brites or ornaments more generally). Thanks so much.

    • Hi, Barbara: I’ll send you out some information on Shiny Brite ornaments directly to your e-mail address! Let me know if you have other questions.

  4. I too am a huge fan of Shiny Brites….would love any information you have on them. thanks for sharing. Best, Jean.

  5. Dear Regan, I just read a book that I bought on Amazon. It is called “The Glassblower” and  is the first book of a trilogy. It is about three sisters in the town of  Lauscha and the beginnings of the making of glass as Christmas ornaments.

  6. Dear Regan, I just finished reading “the Glassblower”. It is the first book of a trilogy and available at Amazon. It was the fictional story of three sisters in Lauscha, Germany, and the beginnings of glass as Christmas ornaments.

  7. Hmm, researching the history of the glass ornaments that came from my mother’s mother – another project to add to my [someday] retirement to-do list! (means it will probably end up on Stephanie’s retirement to-do list!)

  8. Would I be able to purchase a print of the glass from Christmas past photo from the 1936 catalog at the beginning of the article? I absolutely love the graphic!

  9. I would love to get any list of books, articles, reference material that would help me use I American and European Glass Christmas Ornaments.
    [email protected]
    Thalami you,
    Pepper Williams

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