The History of Glass Ornaments
Glass Christmas Ornaments: Timeless and Elegant
Ever since Christmas Days began business more than 40 years ago, European glass reflector ornaments have been among our most popular and asked for items. These ornaments range from traditional images of Christmas, such as Santas and nutcrackers, to the unusual and off-beat. Many ornaments, which seem at first glance to have nothing to do with Christmas, are actually deeply rooted in European folklore.
The pickle ornament, for instance, is a German symbol of good luck.
In the past, the first child to find a pickle on a Christmas tree received a special gift on Christmas morning. As children grew older, however, the pickles got smaller!
Since European glass ornaments are such an integral part of Christmas tree decorating, we thought it would be interesting to delve into how these ornaments came to be. While Christmas as a religious and holiday observance has existed for nearly 2,000 years, glass reflector ornaments are relatively recent, making their first commercial appearance in the 1840s.
They were first made in a German village named Lauscha, about 60 miles north of Nuernberg, in the province of Thueringen. It was a cottage industry craft then. The ornaments were blown and silvered in a workshop attached to a home. Generally the glass was blown by men and the silvering handled by women. All members of the family, including children, helped paint and finish them. A typical work day lasted 15-16 hours, six days a week. At this pace, a family might produce 300-600 glass balls a week, depending on size and complexity.
Why did Lauscha develop into a center for this trade? In the 1590's, Huguenot glass blowers originally living in the German province of Schwaben were forced to flee their homes due to religious persecution. They settled in Thueringen because the ample forests provided energy resources necessary for them to resume their business of glass blowing.
In and around Lauscha, they continued their glass making, chiefly products such as windows and drinking glasses. Later they made decorative bead glass for the jewelry and millinery trades. This bead glass was their main source of income until the 1840's, when glass makers in nearby Bohemia invented a cheaper and better process which captured much of the bead glass market away from Lauscha.
Faced with ruin, some of the glass blowers began refining a craft they had experimented and amused themselves with since the 1820s. Since that time they had blown large glass balls named kugeln, which they now began to silver to give them a brighter, shinier look. The first written record of glass Christmas tree balls appears in 1848. With the production of these Christmas tree balls, Lauscha discovered its economic salvation.
These early glass balls were blown "free hand," without a mold. However artisans soon began to use molds to increase their production. The pine cone was one of the first designs. It was followed gradually by the hundreds of different designs we are familiar with today. By the 1880s buyers from American stores were coming to the area to purchase glass ornaments. One of the earliest was F.W. Woolworth.
World War II totally disrupted the market for German glass. Lauscha wound up ten miles inside the border of East Germany. Although production continued, many glass
blowers and their families escaped to the vicinity of Coburg (now the center of the German glass blowing industry. Much German (and European ) glass is still made by hand; since all the ornaments are hand painted they can't be done on a machine.
We frequently hear from our customers that the glass ornaments are what you remember best about Christmas's from the past. Isn't it interesting that such a pleasing craft assumed its prominence largely because of economic reasons?
Executed with style and imagination, and drawing upon their traditions of hand made craft work, glass reflector ornaments have come a long way from their humble commercial origins. They deserve their recognition as an important form of German folk art.
Most of the images used for European hand blown glass ornaments are common subjects for Christmas tree ornaments, and others are simply the whimsy of a creative glass blower. But some ornaments have religious significance or are a sign of good luck, and a few are associated with charming stories from the glassmakers'past..
Santa blown glass figurals are customary to be hung on the Christmas tree. Because our modern Santa Claus is a composite figure, drawn from legends from many different
areas of the world, there are a great variety of Santa ornaments. They range from a saintly looking character to a grim gnome type to the jolly, robust character that we know today.
All of these variations on Santa are represented in glass ornaments.
Next to Santas, birds are considered to be among the most common figural tree ornament.
They have religious symbolism as being biblical messengers that bring God's love and peace to the world. Birds are also symbolic of good luck and good fortune. It is said that many German families felt that finding a bird's nest was a sign that good luck would come to their family throughout the year.
The fish is an early Christian symbol for Christ.
Many different flowers have graced the Christmas tree over the years, but the rose is special. It is a common flower that was made in glass for the tree because it is an old German symbol for Christ. There is also an old Arabian tale that tells of all the rose bushes in the world blooming the night Christ was born.
Fruits and berries were among the earliest of glass tree decorations.
These molded glass ornaments replaced the fresh fruit that was once used as ornaments by the Victorians. Fruit filled baskets are symbolic with christmas giving and they were once frequently given by churches to the poor. Grape clusters are the most common fruit glass ornament mainly because of the grape's religious significance.
Vegetables were traditional motifs for tree trim in the 1800s. The harvest vegetables, such as carrots, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions were the most popular. These vegetables were placed on the tree to give thanks for the bountiful harvest.
The dog in the potato sack ornament has the motto "my darling" inscribed on it because "my darling" was the trademark for the Witman Company. This company made the
original mold for this ornament, and "My Darling" was a love name for a family doll.
The St. Charles Spaniel was an early blown glass ornament. The spaniel was the most popular pet of the Victorian era, probably due to Queen Victoria's love of them. The pig was not a favorite subject for German glassblowers because it was associated with being a common sacrificial animal of pagan times and even today, it is still identified with customs and lore of Central Europe. As a result, the pig is a rare glass figural because not many molds were made.
The teddy bear ornament represents the stuffed, plush toy bear created by Margarette Steiff in 1903 and named for President Teddy Roosevelt. The teddy bear, originally
thought of as a "boy's toy" was popularized in the American market and a Washington Post cartoonist depicted President Roosevelt dressed in hunting garb refusing an opportunity to shoot a bear cub.
Musical instruments, especially horns, are prevalent since they herald the celebration of Christmas music and were sounded to welcome Christ into the world. Reminescent of nature's own tree decorations, pine cones, walnuts, and icicles are commonly depicted in glass ornaments but each have further significance. Pine cones were often brightly colored and imitated the cones found on European trees. These cones tended to be long and thin. The walnut was known to ancient Romans as "the nut of the Gods" and was one of the very first tree ornaments. Prior to the Reformation,
European children received walnuts from St. Nicholas. And, often tiny gifts were concealed inside a gold or silver painted walnut. Icicles have an interesting old
superstition associated with them. It is said that one can predict the depth of the winter's snows by measuring the length of icicles between Christmas and New Year's Day.
Additional symbols of good luck include the red and white capped mushroom stem, and the chimney sweep ornaments.
Reflectors (the ornaments with geometric concave indentations) are sometimes
referred to as "witches eyes." In the Victorian era at least one reflector ornamnet was placed on the Christmas tree to fend off evil spirits present in the home during
the holiday season.
Treetops that have decorative spheres and a spiked top were shaped to resemble the spike on a Prussian officer's helmet.
If you have found this interesting, you might enjoy our legends of Christmas ornaments page.