The earliest Christmas decorations appeared in the early 1800s. Decorated evergreen trees became popular in Germany and trees were decorated with gingerbread and other hard cookies, nuts, fruits, bits of paper, reflective foil and pieces of lace. In America, popcorn and berry garland were used — corn being introduced to the colonists from the Native Americans.
Glass ornaments appeared in the mid-1800s. The first manufacturer of ornaments known is the Krebs Glas Lauscha company in Germany, which has been in business since 1597. Most likely, a poor glassblower who couldn’t afford accepted decorations of sweets to decorate his Christmas tree formed hollow glass shapes over his oil lamp to create the first glass ornament. By 1847, the factory glass ornaments became so popular the company began producing ornaments in molds to create endless details and shapes. They have been making Christmas ornaments ever since.
Glass ornaments became popular here in America in the late 1800s. F.W. Woolworth saw the market potential for them and became one of the first importers of German glass ornaments in America. Due to World War I, production in Germany nearly stopped due to metal shortages. During World War II, due to the unpopularity of Germany during the war and after, the imports stopped. In 1940 an executive from F.W. Woolworth reached out to Corning Glass in an effort to save both companies, and thus Corning began producing ornaments.
While the glass ornaments were very popular, other types of decorations were sought after as well: pressed and embossed paper ornaments, tin ornaments and, of course, tinsel.
Supposedly, tinsel was created in 1610 in Nuremberg, Germany. The first tinsel was made of shredded silver and it tarnished easily, so other sources of metal were sought. It was first used to decorate sculptures, then eventually made its way onto the Christmas tree as a way to capture and reflect light.
Tinsel production increased during the 1950s when it was made from inexpensive lead and, in fact, became more popular on a tree than lights. However, when the effects of lead poisoning became known, another source had to be found. Today’s tinsel is made from a type of plastic, usually Mylar.
Karen Waterman is an antique furniture and decorative arts appraiser in the East Bay area and will answer as many questions about your own “hidden treasures” as possible. By sending a letter or e-mail with a question, you give full permission for use in the column. Names, addresses or e-mail will not be published and photos will be returned if requested. Send e-mails (digital photos are encouraged) to [email protected] Send snail mail to East Bay Newspapers, Att. Karen Waterman, P.O. Box 90, Bristol, RI 02809.