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.
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.
When 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.
As 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.
“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!