Over the years, Christmas ornaments have evolved from simple, paper pouches to elaborate hand blown glass figurines.
In the Victorian era, Christmas trees were seen as a kind of "gift holder."The earliest manufactured ornaments were designed to hold small treats like candies, nuts, or raisins.They were hollow and made of stiff paper, cardboard, cotton, or papier mache.
The Christmas tree was sometimes called a “sugar tree” because of all the treats dangling from its branches. The ornaments could also hold small toys like marbles and jacks.
Dresden ornaments were the most expensive kind of early paper ornaments. In 1882, they sold for 12 cents a piece wholesale, which meant that the average worker could not afford to buy one.
These distinctive ornaments were made by cottage workers in the cities of Dresden and Leipzig in Germany between 1880 and 1910. They were three dimensional containers made of damp cardboard that was stamped and embossed. They were finished with silver or gold leaf.
Before 1880, glass ornaments were extremely rare. Like many kinds of Christmas tree ornaments, the Germans were the leading producers of glass ornaments in the Victorian period. Peasant families would embellish and decorate balls made of thin walled glass all year round for sale at holiday time. Many were exported to the United States.
As World War II approached, the United States could no longer trade with Germany. As a result, the American glass ornament business blossomed overnight. Corning Glass produced America’s first glass Christmas tree ornaments. Prices fell as machine-made ornaments flooded the market. They were made faster and cheaper than the ones produced by the German cottage industry.
As part of the Marshall Plan, Max Eckhardt traveled to Germany after the war to try to reestablish the ornament trade. But by then, Americans had grown accustomed to sturdier and cheaper ornaments. We were not at all interested in buying pricey, fragile ornaments.
Christopher Radko Ornaments
One man single handedly revived the custom of purchasing expensive, fancy ornaments, much to his family’s horror.
In 1983, when he was 22 years old, Christopher Radko placed his family’s Christmas tree in a new kind of stand. Unfortunately, it was not sturdy enough, and the Radko Christmas tree came crashing to the ground, smashing nearly 2000 vintage ornaments. Some had been in his family for four generations.
Devastated, Radko began to search for replacements of the ornaments he had destroyed. He found a glass blower in Poland who agreed to make some from the sketches he had made from memory.
Friends back home in New York were taken with the beautiful ornaments Radko commissioned. They quickly purchased them and wanted more. What started out as a side business in his spare time would grow into a multi-million dollar corporation.
Originally, Radko produced replicas of the treasured family heirlooms he had destroyed. Gradually he added elements from American pop culture, including Campbell’s soup cans, Disney characters, Barbie, and much more.
Radko ornaments are highly collectible and continue to be popular today, 25 years after Radko ruined his family’s ornament collection.
Source: Merry Christmas: Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday by Karal Ann Marling