A Tale of Two World Wars, and Christmas Ornaments
Once upon a time, deep in the mountains of Germany, there was a charming little village named Lauscha. It was surrounded by snowy slopes and magnificent pine trees, and was home to generations of glassblowers. It was a special town indeed, because since the mid-1800s, their primary trade was Christmas. The traditional German Tannenbaum or Kristbaum had caught the attention of the rest of the world. Seeing an opportunity, Lauscha turned their glass blowers to making ornaments. The result was a thriving business that swept up every glassblower in town. They even became the inventor of one of the most famous ornaments of all – the glass ball. Lauscha glassblowers would often amuse themselves by seeing how big a glass bubble they could blow in their shop. Known as “kugels,” they were silvered with shiny solutions like lead or zinc to give them a dazzling reflective look. Sometime in the 1840s, someone got the idea to use the kugels as a tree ornament.
The world hasn’t been the same since. Glass balls to hang on the tree took the Christmas market by storm. Today, they are easily made (of plastic more often than not), sold in masses, and come in any color imaginable. Back then, each one was made by hand in a long process that involved an entire family of glassblowers. Lauscha worked long and hard to keep up with the demand. They even added to the allure by creating intricate glass-blown figurine ornaments such as pinecones, birds, and fruits. By the 1900s, Lauscha provided the large majority of all the glass tree ornaments sold around the world.
Each family had their own workshop. The father blew the balls in the glass ovens. The mother usually got the job of silvering the inside of them, and dipping them in various-colored lacquers for finishing. The children hung them to dry, and capped them with their metal tops. When a full batch was done, the mother took the shiny new ornaments to the local market for selling. After that, they were exported to markets across the world. Thanks to fuel from F.W. Woolworth, one of the biggest buyers was America.
All was well for Lauscha, and the Americans that loved their Christmas Trees. Then came a major hiccup. World War I. As part of a conflict destined to bleed Europe dry, allied nations put an embargo on goods from Germany. The Christmas Tree industry took a hit. Store owners drug out their leftovers from past years and sold them at exorbitant prices. By 1918, even those were long-since tapped out. Some half-baked attempts at American-made ornaments popped up here and there, but they were hastily made with limited materials. They were also crude in appearance, since American makers hadn’t mastered the delicate process. Ugly brownish tints appeared on many, and the only shape produced was the round ball.
So, when the war ended, the Lauscha glassblowers were fast to regain their primary market. By then, a man named Max Eckardt had also entered the story. He began his Christmas career as a toy maker in his hometown of Oberlin, Germany. It was just twenty miles from Lauscha, so he was more than familiar with the Christmas trade. In a town where most of the shops were family owned, he saw no opportunity for advancement. So, he packed up and moved to America. He started in toymaking in New York, and by 1926, he and his brother co-owned their own factory. Known as “Brothers Eckardt” (or Gebruder Eckardt), they made wooden toys, and even cranked out some of their own glass tree ornaments. However, like all others in the trade, most of their ornaments were imported from Lauscha, and Max made yearly trips there for business.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany. Afterward, Eckardt’s trips back home became fraught with tension and anxiety. As he listened to Hitler’s inflammatory speeches on the radio, and witnessed the violent changes through the country, a chill crept down his spine. He sensed that once again, the world would soon be at war.
Not about to be caught up in another Christmas draught, Eckardt came up with a plan. There were many Lauscha-born glassblowers living in New York, working for a company called Corning Glass. They had recently patented a glass-blowing machine that could pump out glass light bulbs at the pace of thousands per minute. Eckardt wanted that machine to make glass ornaments instead. If successful, it could make more ornaments in five minutes than Lauscha glassblowers could in an entire week.
As war with Germany became imminent, Eckardt gained support for his idea. One of his allies was the ever-powerful Woolworth’s company. In 1939, Eckardt and Woolworth teamed up, and offered to place a lavish order with Corning glass if they agreed to use their machine for ornament making. Their venture was a success. In 1940, large cartons of Corning Glass ornament balls were sent to Eckardt’s brand new decorating plant in New Jersey. There, they were silvered inside, lacquered, and some were even hand-decorated. In a combination of mechanized glass blowing, and ornate Lauscha-style decoration, Eckardt’s ornament business exploded with success. His ornaments were everywhere.
Two years after orchestrating the mechanization of tree ornaments, Eckardt’s predictions came true. The United States clashed with Germany in World War II. By then, he dominated the ornament trade. Changing his company’s name to “Shiny Brite” to commemorate their sparkling ornaments, his business was booming. Even with war shortages on lacquer and metal, Shiny Brite ground on by replacing metal caps with cardboard, and switching to plainer decorative methods for the glass balls.
After World War II, Shiny Brite was the biggest ornament company in the world. By the 1950s, Eckardt had four plants in New Jersey that were busy year-round, decorating and preparing ornaments for Christmas trees across America. The whole process had become mechanized as well. Machines even did the intricate painting and decorating.
In 1961, the sun set on Shiny Brite when Max Ecardt died. The company decline was also blamed on the rise of plastic ornaments around the same time. Either way, the Shiny Brite heyday was over. In the 1990s, the company was bought by fellow ornament designer Christopher Radko. In 2001, he resurrected the Shiny Brite brand, and began selling reproductions that are mostly made overseas.
Today, original Shiny Brite ornaments have been relegated to quiet, lonely corners of antique shops. Their pastel colors, hand-painted candy stripes, and glittery designs are chipped and faded, relics of a bygone era. However, many still grace the Christmas trees of those with a historical eye. And for them, they will always be symbolic of a “brite” period in the story of Christmas Tree ornaments.
“The Christmas Tree Book” – P.V. Snyder
“Inventing the Christmas Tree” – B. Brunner
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more, please visit my photo gallery.
This will be my last article of 2017. A happy holiday season to all, and best wishes for a happy new year! Come back in 2018 for lots more historical fun!