Vintage? or Not?
Updated: Apr 22, 2021
Are you new to collecting ornaments or do you simply want to date that pack of old Christmas ornaments you found in Grandma’s loft? This article will give you some background, so you can start your journey into the wonderful world of vintage bauble collecting with a little background knowledge. There’s a lot more to learn than I can relate in one blog, but exploring and learning is part of the fun, isn’t it?
Baubles are ephemeral bits of decoration that often follow the trends of the time. To help date an old ornament, take a look at the overall colours used, the materials it’s made of, and the general style. Is it a larger ornament in beige, aqua and pink? It’s probably from the 1980’s when home decorators loved those hues. Do the ornament have painted “flower power” motifs that look like they’d fit on a hippy’s jeans? The 1970’s, for sure. What materials are the ornaments made of? Plastics details or the entire ornament made of plastic will put it in the post war era. And if they come in a printed original box, that’s a gold mine of dating information.
Look at the wear and tear of the ornament. Often ornaments are stored in attics, garages, back rooms and other places where they are subject to heat and cold extremes and, unfortunately, bugs. Plastics degrade over time, especially if they sit in a hot attic, so check out the condition. Something suspiciously new looking could be a modern reproduction.
The paint on early glass ornaments would expand and contract in the heat and cold when stored in unheated places, causing blistering and cracking. While blistering and cracking will lower the value of an ornament, it also attests to its age and to me, is a charming feature.
The parts used to hang the ornament need a good examination, too. A collector will soon learn the styles of metal hangers that change over time. At the very least, look at the patina on the metal and see if it’s too new and shiny or dull, even a bit rusty. New reproductions sometimes use dyed or tinted metal to imitate that dull and rusty look. Over time, silvering also shows degradation with spots, flakes, and scratches. Again, time is not kind to mirror type finishes, but a few scratches and spots shows authentic age and attests that these ornaments are the real deal, handled and loved by generations. A note about reproductions- There is absolutely nothing wrong with buying reproductions to hang and enjoy, you just don’t want to pay a premium for an original antique and find out later it was a repro. I’m not intending to disregard reproductions at all, I simply want to know which is which and buy intelligently, and I’m sure you do, too. Here’s a timeline that might help you date an ornament.
Early History… 1600’s to 1840’s
Decorated trees started in Germany in the 16th century, when fir trees (which symbolise life because they don’t shed their leaves and the trinity, because they have three sides) were decorated with apples, to emulate paradise trees in the garden of Eden. Later trees were decorated with candles, pastries and wafers. The pasties were often gingerbread shapes with circles being easy to make and stable, or of figures like angels. Later, strings of beads, streamers and berries were added to the trees. Legend says that Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, was the first to put candles on a Christmas tree. Very early decorations (1600’s) were painted nutshells, tinsel and cut paper ornaments. Early tinsel was made of real silver! Hessian soldiers exported the custom of decorating a tree with ornaments to America during the American Revolution, mid 1770’s. Glass ornaments were probably invented by Hans Greiner in Germany in 1847. He produced what is referred to as mercury glass or silvered glass. These glass ornaments were often painted by hand. Mercury glass starts with the artisan blowing glass into a mould, which allows them to create detailed objects. Once the glass has cooled and been removed from the mould, the silvering process can be started. Usually, a mixture of mercury and tin was then inserted through a small hole in the ornament to coat the inside. The hole would then be sealed. Unfortunately, mercury is poisonous and as soon as its toxicity was discovered, a substitute of sugar water and silver nitrate was used to replicate the silvered effect, but we still call that style of ornament “mercury” glass.
Manufactured ornaments became all the rage when an image of Queen Victoria and the German Prince Albert’s Christmas tree, decked in baubles, was published in 1848 in “The Illustrated London News.”
Early 1800’s to 1900
German Kugel ornaments. These are heavier glass blown ornaments, often in ribbed, or shaped forms. The sizes can be very small to large, especially if they were used as shop window decorations. Because some are heavy glass, the ones used on Christmas trees tended to be smaller. The metal hanging parts are heavier and by now are usually brown with patina and oxidation. These are easy to imitate, so you will see modern examples for sale and you can usually tell the difference between the modern ones and the very old ones by the wear and scratches on the glass and the metal bits. Modern metal hangers are sometimes tinted brown, not oxidised. Victorians also used die-cut cardboard ornaments that reflected the themes of the day. You’ll see pastoral scenes, angels, St. Nicholas, etc. On many of these you will see glitter and applied ribbons. Again, these are easily imitated, so check out the details, take a look at the printing methods. 1880 - 1910
Dresden paper animal and figural ornaments (papier mache’) are among the rarest and most expensive ornaments for collectors and can reach into the thousands of pounds. The shapes were beautifully constructed and the ephemeral material made them delicate to handle and tasty to bugs, so not many of them survived.
1890 - 1920
Spun cotton or cotton batting ornaments became popular during this time. These were often of fruit and vegetables and had the advantage of not breaking. They were dyed or painted in bright colours (now faded) and sometimes sprinkled with tinsel and paper leaves. Of course, being made of cotton and paper, these didn’t take to well to attic living and while they were made in the millions, the moths loved them and are rare to find today.
Bottle brush trees became popular as ornaments at this time, then faded in popularity to enjoy a revival in the 1980’s. 1940
Compared to today’s spheres, these are on a smaller scale and what we think of as mini-baubles today were the normal size in the war years and immediately after. They are generally about the size of a ping pong ball. Shaped baubles (figurals) were small, about the size of your thumb and were very simple in both modeling and in the colours used. We still see cardboard baubles and tin examples in this era. Metal rationing in WW2 led to the wires and hanging bits being replaced by cardboard. These are very rare today because (obviously) the cheap cardboard perished and the baubles were thrown out after a few years. During this time baubles weren’t gilded or silvered due to wartime lack of materials to do so, and the matte look of wartime baubles is distinctive. 1900 - 1940
Glass figurals (shaped) ornaments from Germany were exported to the rest of the world by the millions. Many came from Lauscha, Germany. The overall shapes were simple and compact, with pressed details and textures on the sides. Some of the themes were St. Nicholas, houses, and natural shapes like acorns. Abstract shapes were popular, too. At this time you’ll start to see the indented bauble, which is a round sphere with a faceted indent in one side. The indent was meant to reflect the lights on the Christmas tree.
Post War decorations used bright primary colours, stripes, smaller scale, flocking, more use of plastics. High speed and cheaper mass production made painted details simple and very quickly splashed on. Shaped baubles still include the traditional Father Christmas, but also include quirky items like rockets and baby’s heads. Here is where we start to see diorama ornaments imported from Japan. These are larger indented or hollowed out glass and plastic ornaments with scenes made of plastic figures (think snowman in the forest) inside the indents. Wooden ornaments like tiny nutcrackers and rocking horses start to enter the market.
Here we start to get into “nuclear retro”. Still mostly round baubles, but now we start seeing some different shapes, like stars, more plastic trims, some high end baubles getting a bit larger, colors are hotter and brighter (more oranges, yellows, lime green, etc.) and more use of silver highlights and flocking. Plastics are very popular and we see more tinsel. Finial tree toppers of blown glass in abstract nuclear retro colours and styles start entering the market. 1970 Spun silk baubles made of polyester start to show up and some feature printed images on the spun silk. You’ll see in the 1970’s more commercial themed baubles ( advertising and cartoon characters) and baubles with words on them. Look for “flower power”, hippy styles. Baubles are getting larger and have a wider variety of shapes and materials. Popular decor colours are golds, avocado green, paprika and brown in “tasteful” arrangements as well as hot pinks, yellows, lime green and oranges. 1980 Baubles are getting very large, about the size of a large apple. Popular colours are teal, pink, muted or deep rich golds, burgundys, blues. Styles include both lux with gold highlights or a lighter Victorian cottage feel. We’re not into Shabby Chic yet, but heading in that direction. Shaped baubles become very popular. Christopher Radko revived the hand-blown shaped bauble in 1983 and within a few years this revival became a trend and so many shaped glass baubles that you see will date from the mid-80s to modern era. In the 1980’s we see a resurgence of cloth ornaments, many using ethnic themes (an elephant from India, for instance) or from European traditions. This is a quick overview for bauble aficionados to help you with more targeted and intelligent collecting. No particular era or style is right or wrong, collect whatever makes you happy! I find the more I learn the more I appreciate the history and skill that goes into something as silly as a bauble. Happy collecting!
Check out The Rum Lot's Vintage page at https://www.rumlot.com/vintage for an ever-changing selection of vintage baubles you can buy.