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Glass Ornaments of Christmases Past 
Add Sparkle to Christmas Present 

by Bob Brooke



Early Christmas ornament.When people look back over their lives, they often find that the memories and emotions of Christmas rise above all the other emotions in both vividness and intensity. Child-like emotions of excitement and anticipation infect even adults during this time of year. Antique Christmas ornaments can do more than anything to rekindle these emotions.

At one time 95 percent of the glass tree ornaments used on American Christmas trees came from the immediate vicinity of Lauscha, near Nuremberg, Germany. Here, Louis Greiner-Schlotfeger invented the glass Christmas ball. Glass making began here in the 1590's when religious persecution forced groups of Protestant glass makers to leave their homes in Bavaria and go east to the Thuringian mountains. There they found an abundance of wood, sand, and limestone, the necessary ingredients for their craft.

Soon Lauscha became a center for making drinking glasses and bulls-eye window glass. By the middle of the 18th century, Lauscha’s glassblowers had begun to make glass beads. Soon the demands of the fashion industry made glass beads into the town’s number-one business.

But by 1845 glassblowers in Bohemia began to produce superior beads. Overnight the village lost most of its bead market to Bohemia. Fighting hard times, Louis Greiner-Schlotfeger began blowing thick-walled glass balls known as kugels, which he silvered with the Bohemian silver mirroring solution that he duplicated. These were heavy, plainly colored pieces, shaped as balls and fruits. Even though they appeared on every Christmas tree in Lauscha, the first record of glass tree balls being produced didn't appear until 1848, when "six dozen of Christmas tree ornaments in three sizes" was recorded in a glassblower's ledger.

Early Ornaments
Early Christmas ornament. Among the oldest Christmas tree balls made in Lauscha were schecken, meaning spotted or dappled–also known by the musical name of plumbum (pronounced plumeboom), meaning lead.

While each ornament maker created his wares in a small home workshop using his own designs, his wife took care of silvering the inside of them. After she coated the insides, she would hang them up to dry on long nails in rows from the ceiling over the stove. The following morning the silver ornaments were dipped in various colored lacquers and returned to their nails to dry. Family members helped paint trimmings, and the youngest child put on the little metal caps. Working 8 to 15 hours a day, often 6 days a week, a family could make from 300 to 600 ornaments a week.

In 1867, a gas works was built in the village and for the first time, Greiner-Schlotfeger and the other glassblowers had a steady, very hot, easily adjustable flame which allowed them to make thin-walled bubbles of glass. Using this new heat source, Greiner-Schlotfeger perfected a paper-thin, four-inch version of the old heavy kugel and in 1870, he discovered the idea for molded glass ornaments by blowing a bubble of glass into a pine-cone-shaped cookie mold.

Fruits and Pine Cones
Soon the glassblowers began making tree ornaments in the shapes of pine cones, apples, pears, and crystal icicles. In addition, they made trumpets from twisted glass straws, handblown vases, birds, multicolored acorns and elephants, ornate churches and dignified Saint Nicks. At first they were only sold through rafftrageirs, or peddlers with pack baskets, but in a short time, they were being exported to America.

By 1880, full-sized trees decorated with expensive imported German glass ornaments became the rage with the elite. American F. W. Woolworth reluctantly agreed to display a few imported German glass ornaments to his Lancaster, Pennsylvania, store in 1880. To his amazement, his original $25 shipment sold out in two days. By 1890, he was traveling to Germany to select his wares. Soon customers added one or two of these special ornaments to their paper or fabric tree decorations.

Ornaments From Molds
By 1890, the Lauscha glassblowers perfected the use of molds, called formsachen, in their work. Though blowing an ornament in a mold was a time-consuming but fairly simple operation, it paved the way for mass production. Skilled craftsmen made the molds from wood or clay. They designed the object and then cast it in a plaster-of Paris-like material. With a reusable mold, the glassblowers could reproduce an ornament many times over.

Among the many beautiful glass ornaments made from molds, Santa Claus figures, known to the Lauscha galssblowers as Klausmaun, were a popular motif. Sometimes just the head was shown. But when the entire figure was made, whether wearing a long or short coat, the ornament always ended in a rounded base with no legs. In the traditional manner, Santa frequently carried a Christmas tree or bag of toys.

An enormous variety of ornaments–from over 5,000 different molds--came out of Lauscha between 1870 and 1940. Some glassblowers blew by hand. But the ultimate design was a free-blown eight-inch stork that stood majestically on a Christmas tree branch.

Some of the glassblowers specialized in free-blowing the "tree tops" shaped like the spike on a Prussian officer's helmet. They also experimented with new ways to decorate their creations and came up with etching the glass surface to give their ornaments a frosted appearance.

The War Took Its Toll
Ornament from 1940s.World War II ended Lauscha's fame as an ornament center in 1939. After the war, the border placed the village ten miles inside East Germany, but this didn't stop the glassblowers. Many fled to the West and settled in Coburg.

Soon the technical knowledge of making glass ornaments spread to Bohemia (later part of Czechoslovakia) and Russia. The glassmakers of Bohemia, long known for their sparkling red glass, adopted bead making to strings of beads for Christmas trees. They began making ornaments by the end of the 19th century and soon competed head on with the Germans.

The celebration of Christmas had always been big in Russia until the Communists came into power after the revolution in 1917. They made Christmas into an atheistic holiday and banned Christmas trees. However, in the early 1920's, Lenin, realizing that his badly floundering economy was about to go under, permitted some private enterprise. One of the first cottage industries to emerge featured hand blown, hand painted glass Christmas ornaments picturing fanciful images of

Grandfather Frost, the Snow Maiden and other popular Russian folk tale figures. Glassblowers created individually handblown ornaments from the early 1920s to the 1960s.. Even those of the same kind were silvered and painted entirely by hand by different artists.

What to Look For
Within the past 15 years, collecting old glass ornaments has become hot, creating a thriving market for these beautiful glass creations. It's difficult to tell which of the old glass ornaments were made in Germany, as many were also made in Czechoslovakia and Russia and few were signed.

The pine cone was, by far, the most popular design. Other favorites were Santas, birds, nuts, flowers, clusters of grapes, and musical instruments such as drums and violins. Glassblowers experimented with geometric designs, too, most of them intricate and ingenious variations on the basic ball shape.

It was typical to make a single design, such as an acorn or a tulip, in three different sizes, all exact replicas. Only a large collection of old ornaments can reflect the seemingly endless number of molds made between the 1880s and 1940. Manufacturers offered new designs each season to stimulate business and many of the rarest of them today most likely were produced for a single season by a single man.

Today, there's been a resurgence of interest in the old designs and many reproductions are available. Tim and Beth Merck of Spokane, Washington, founded Merck Family's Old World Christmas in 1979. This couple shares a special love for Christmas, especially its rich traditions in the European style. Today, the Merck Family's Old World Christmas is the leading distributor of quality glass ornaments in the U.S. Each glass ornament produced for the Merck Family's Old World Christmas is hand crafted in age-old traditions. Molten glass is mouth-blown into finely created molds, which are available only to the company, before being hand-painted and finished. Each ornament is authentically created with the same techniques originated in the 1800's, thus making it difficult to tell them from the originals.

The Ornament Market
While Christmas shops, like the one in Manteo, North Carolina, overflow with newer renditions, it's flea markets and yard sales in late summer and early fall that hold the real finds. Sometimes, they're sold individually for 25 cents and up or in a box lot for $2 or $3. It takes some ingenuity and imagination, but from time to time a valuable ornament does surface.

"The market is strong," said Ed Petzoldt of New Park, Pennsylvania, the first to publish a sales list of Christmas ornaments. "Old glass ornaments sell from $10 to $500-600 each." The price is determined by the ornament's age, color, condition and manufacturer. Unfortunately, the detail of the painting is often flaking off and mint pieces are becoming harder to find. But when a collector does find one, it can make it seem like Christmas no matter what day of the year it is.

Collectors can stay in touch and learn more about antique ornaments through organizations such as the Golden Glow of Christmas Past, a national club for people who collect antique Christmas decorations. Another popular group is COOL (Collecting Ornaments On-Line) Collectors Club, a virtual collectors' club. Groups like these are an invaluable aid to the novice collector.

To read more articles by Bob Brooke, please visit his Web site.

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