A Tale of Two World Wars and Christmas Ornaments

Once upon a time, deep in the mountains of Germany, there lay a charming little village called Lauscha. It was surrounded by snowy slopes and magnificent pine trees, and generations of glassblowers called it home. Their town was extra-special too, because since the mid-1800s, they had made Christmas their primary trade. 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 thriving business swept up every glassblower in town.

Lauscha even became the inventor of one of the most famous ornaments  – the glass ball. On slow days, glassblowers would often amuse themselves by seeing how big a glass bubble they could blow in their ovens. Known as “kugels,” blowers silvered the balls 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.

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An authentic, antique, glass-blown ornament from Lauscha

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, glassblowers and their families made each one by hand in a painstakingly long and detailed process. 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, and the mother got the job of silvering the insides and dipping them in various-colored lacquers. The children hung them to dry and capped them with their metal tops. When they finished a full batch, mothers took the shiny new ornaments to the local market for selling. After that, their goods were exported to markets across the world. Thanks to fuel from F.W. Woolworth, one of the biggest buyers was America.

All went well for Lauscha, and the Americans who loved their Christmas Trees. Then came a major hiccup known as World War I. As part of a conflict destined to bleed Europe dry, allied nations put a shipping embargo on all goods from Germany.

The Christmas Tree industry took a major 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 crafters had limited materials and no instruction manuals. What they slapped together looked crude at best, since American makers hadn’t mastered the delicate process. Ugly brownish tints appeared on many, and only round balls (no more cute pine cones or fruits) came off the factory lines.

IMG_8963When the war ended, everyone had grown exasperated with the stale-looking knock-off ornaments, so Lauscha glassblowers quickly regained their primary market. By then, a man named Max Eckardt had also entered the story.

Eckardt 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. However, in a town where most shops were family owned, he saw no opportunity for advancement. So, he packed up and moved to America.

He started in toy-making 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 they also cranked out some of their own glass tree ornaments. However, like all others in the trade, they imported most of their ornaments 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 as he witnessed the violent changes through his home 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. He knew many Lauscha-born glassblowers living in New York, and most worked 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.

IMG_8928As war with Germany became imminent,  and other Christmas industries began to feel the shudder, Eckardt gained support for his idea from many places. His most prominent ally was the ever-powerful Woolworth’s company. In 1939, Eckardt and Woolworth teamed up, and they 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 arrived at Eckardt’s brand new decorating plant in New Jersey. There, workers silvered them inside, lacquered them, and even hand-decorated a few. In a combination of mechanized glass blowing, and ornate Lauscha-style decoration, Eckardt’s ornament business exploded with success, and his ornaments wound up on practically every tree in America.

Two years after orchestrating the mechanization of tree ornaments, Eckardt’s predictions came true. The United States clashed with Germany in World War II. But by then, Eckardt already dominated the ornament trade. Changing his company’s name to “Shiny Brite” to commemorate their sparkling ornaments, his business continued to boom. Even with war shortages on lacquer and metal, Shiny Brite ground on by replacing metal caps with cardboard. They also switched to plainer decorative methods for the glass balls.

After World War II, Shiny Brite remained the biggest ornament company in the world. By the 1950s, Eckardt had four plants in New Jersey, and all were busy year-round decorating and preparing ornaments for Christmas trees. The whole process had become mechanized as well. Machines even did the intricate painting and decorating.

In 1961, Max Eckardt died, and the sun finally began its descent on the iconic Shiny Brite enterprise. The company decline also got blamed on the rise of plastic ornaments, which happened right around the same time as Eckardt’s death. Either way, the Shiny Brite heyday was over. In the 1990s, fellow ornament designer Christopher Radko bought them out, and in 2001, he resurrected the Shiny Brite brand, 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.

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SOURCES

“The Christmas Tree Book” – P.V. Snyder

“Inventing the Christmas Tree” – B. Brunner

http://www.christopherradko.com

Wikipedia

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!

39 Comments on “A Tale of Two World Wars and Christmas Ornaments

  1. This was very interesting. Bob’s mother has some these ornaments stashed away in her attic. She would love this story. Thank you for sharing so many wonderful stories with us! I look forward to 2018 and more history lessons! You have mad this family so proud. You have such a gift for writing. Your Godmother Clarice is smiling!

    • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. Definitely tune back in next year, I have lots of stuff on the horizon!

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it! It was a story I just stumbled on while researching something else, and thought it was too crazy not to share. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I truly enjoyed reading this. I am german but learned something new here and appreciate you for the research you did and in sharing this. Frohe Weihnachten

    • I’m so glad you stopped by and enjoyed the article! It was fun to write. Thanks so much!

  3. This was really interesting. I can’t imagine how long it took the family glassblowers, back in the day, to do all that careful work by hand, and on such thin, fragile glass, too.

    I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any of these antique ornaments. I’ll be keeping an eye out for them, that’s for sure!

    • Agreed, from the research ive done it sounds like the process was pretty intricate. Plus spending all day at those hot glass ovens. We were just at an antique store today and saw a ton of the 50s shiny brites. It was pretty cool. Glad you liked the article, I always enjoy when you stop by and comment.

    • I totally agree! The heart glassblown ornament pictured here was given to me by a dear friend and its one of my favorites! Thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the article.

  4. That was a particularly interesting post for us. We had a few Shiny Brite ornaments on our tree this year simply because they came from our first Christmas together. I did not know the story at all.

    • I didnt know the story either. I just stumbled upon it while I was researching something else Christmas related. I decided it was too amazing not to share. Thats so cool that you have shiny brites from your first Christmas! Thanks so much for stopping by for a visit!

  5. Sadly we have to say we prefer the modern tree decorations… and the old glass ones have to stay in the box, safely packed out of the way of 12 cat paws. Shattered balls create too much mess! Very interesting post, we do love the old and new handmade decorations, so much nicer than the mass created shatterproof ones.

    • I hear you with the cat paws! We had to start putting all our fragile ornaments towards the top (thankfully they never mastered climbing). Glad you enjoyed the article!

  6. I love this historical account of the Christmas decorations, especially since I lived in Germany for awhile…and I enjoy history as a rule– am reading Bonhoeffer at the moment, so long over due! Thank you for stopping by my blog so I found yours, as I am new to WordPress!

    • Welcome to WordPress! You will love it. I’m glad you stopped by and enjoyed the article. I will be looking forward to checking out more of your blog!

    • I’ve seen some of the originals in the antique shop nearby, I just might get them this year! Glad they gave you a quick window to your past! 🙂 thanks for stopping by!

  7. Pingback: Why Apples? A Tale of Eden and Christmas Trees - M.B. HENRY

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it! You also might like “the Christmas Tree Book” which is listed there in the sources for both articles. It has all kinds of cool stories about the origins of some of our most well-known holiday traditions. It was such an informative and fun read!

  8. A fascinating bit of history. A few years ago I dug into the origins of my artificial tree that is now in it’s second fifty years of duty, but the back story on the ornaments that hang on it every year was a mystery. No longer!

    • Wow that’s amazing about your tree! So very impressive 🙂 I’m so glad I could help shed some light on the ornament aspect. Thank you so much for giving this a read and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  9. Very interesting read. It brings back memories of my childhood. These days, I pull out of the cupboard a tiny plastic Christmas tree. 🙂

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