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Woolworths Baubles

If you are of a “certain age” you might remember buying Christmas baubles at Woolworths. Cheap and cheerful, they were a staple of the season. Today they’re not cheap and cheerful, they’re vintage and a box of baubles that cost 50p back in 1961 will go for £25 today. Even in “old money” that’s well more than the rate of inflation. My mum should have bought Christmas baubles, not post office bonds! Frank Woolworth bought his first baubles in the US in 1880 and they were huge sellers. In 1909 he started selling them in the UK and by then Woolworths had a well established history in mass marketing all things Christmas. The first Woolies was in Liverpool and on their opening day, 5th of November, 1909, the Woolworths adverts featured Christmas baubles. In the beginning the baubles were hand-made in Germany and Russia, but when WW1 broke out, that interrupted supplies and Woolworths established a network of regional manufacturers and suppliers with the major supplier in New York City. This network outlasted the war and these new suppliers also contributed new designs and techniques. Between 1880 and 1939 it’s estimated that over 500 million individual baubles were sold. That’s a lot of baubles! Almost as many as I have in my back bedroom! The Woolworths Museum writes “Although fancy decorations for the Christmas tree were already fashionable in Edwardian high society, they were too expensive for ordinary people. Woolworth's changed that overnight, bringing the price down from two to five shillings (10-25p) to just one old penny each (the equivalent of ½p at the time, or about 35p today. The ornaments became best sellers.

Individual blown glass Christmas decorations were sold for one old penny each or a dozen for ten old pence (4p) in Woolworths in the 1910s and 20s

Naturally the British stores chose the same German manufacturers for their decorations. The Buyer hatched a plan to increase efficiency. William Stephenson, an Englishman, suggested that ships bound for New York should be re-routed via Hull where the goods could follow the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway to the Liverpool docks for onward transfer across the Atlantic. Fierce competition in the docks of the North West seaport had seen shipping costs fall sharply, achieving a significant saving while also allowing the newly-founded chain to cherry-pick their requirements.”

Most of the baubles were made at home in family workshops. The demand was so great that they worked all year round, filling wicker baskets with baubles before taking them to a Woolworth warenhausen (warehouse) in Sonneberg or a similar facility in Fuerth near Nurermberg, Germany. Both locations inspected the goods and, if they met the standard, paid cash at once. Contract staff emptied the baskets before packing and wrapping the contents ready to be sent to the shops.

Edwardian designs like bells are still popular today. But other Woolworth’s classics did not survive the automation of manufacture during the twentieth century. For example intricate miniature glass trumpets and guitars, whose penny prices had once made them the firm favourites, were dropped in the 1920s in favour of simpler designs that could be made by machines.

After WW1 American factories had devised a new addition to the range. Their 'finial baubles', for the top of the tree, proved to be a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Made from brightly-decorated glass, they clipped over the top branch, allowing a candle to illuminate the tree. Before homes had electricity they gave a magic touch ... and sometimes burnt the house down !

During the 1920s elaborate paper decorations became popular. These unfolded into bells, fancy pom-pom balls or stars. The stores also sold individual metre-long lengths of tinsel, with a thin design for a penny and a 'plush garland' for threepence (about 1¼p then, about £1.05 each today). The vintage paper decorations are the hardest to find for obvious reasons. Paper deteriorates quite quickly and handling by both mice and men makes things worse. 'Chalkware' became a fad of the 1930s. Gypsum plaster was moulded into elegant nativity sets. These were brightly coloured with water-based paint and finished with a glossy varnish. Each figure was sixpence, or shoppers could trade up to an eight-piece set including a dark-stained plywood crib for three shillings (15p at the time, equivalent to about £12.60 today). The pieces were heavy and quite brittle, but the glaze has helped many to survive without fading, giving a snapshot on a bygone age today. After the 1930’s American and UK Woolworths retail offers began to diverge. New US labour laws, setting a minimum wage and a maximum working week, forced it to relax and then abandon its upper price limit. This paved the way for new, more expensive lines. By 1939 the best seller state-side was a string of nine electric bakelite tree lights for 85¢, seventeen times the old limit !

In Britain the sixpenny limit was considered sacroscant. Suppliers were forced to boost efficiency to retain the 600-strong chain's huge orders.

As a concession most were able to generate profit through new lines that were cheaper to make, which were given pride-of-place in-store. For example every branch was festooned with paper decorations. As well as boosting sales this created an 'olde-worlde' festive atmosphere that was very different from the ultra-modern styling adopted in North America.

In 1939 the differences between the US Woolworths and the UK Woolworths offer was worlds apart. As the Woolworth Museum says, “In 1939 the gap widened dramatically. By Christmas Britain was at war with Germany. Displays at Woolworth were a little depleted. Stores were issuing pamphlets showing how to 'make do and mend', spot an enemy plane, and interpret military insignia. In contrast the USA was enjoying a period of prosperity after the dark days of the great depression. Sentiment was strongly anti-war, keeping the country neutral. Woolworth shoppers were offered free copies of the first full-colour catalogue featuring its latest innovations and notions for all the family.”

Throughout the war British stores made a point of stocking Christmas decorations to boost morale. These were made from paper and cardboard rather than precious metal or glass. Crepe Paper was the best seller. The pack explained how to make garlands and paper flowers. Woolworth also sold packs of gummed, coloured paper to make paper chains. People remember that the wartime cow gum glue tasted horrible! Baubles and decorations made during the War years are also difficult to find for collectors and it’s worth knowing what subtle hints to look for. I’ll set out another blog post specifically about how to identify WW2 era Christmas decorations, so watch for that! Ironically, soon after entering the war, American bombers annihilated the Woolworth warenhausen in Sonneberg, which now made munitions for the Luftwaffe. Never again would it offer blown glass decorations. The Russian bauble factories didn’t recover, either. Factories in occupied Japan took up the slack.

From 1946 until 1955 the British, German and North American stores all carried these new decorations in the same packaging. In ordinary times each country would have insisted on its own look.

As life returned to normal in the early 1950s after post-war austerity measures were relaxed, UK sales and profit rocketed as the stores went from strength to strength. Without an upper price limit the Woolworths employees were free to build more elaborate ranges. But they made a particular point of pricing their seasonal ranges competitively. There was a wide ranges of items available, with snow globes, paper and foil decorations still sixpence each and miniature nine inch Christmas Trees for one shilling and sixpence (7½p). The materials used to make decorations changed in the 1950s. Plastic and nylon took the place of glass and paper became less popular. Hong Kong became a key source. Clever marketing of these 'Empire-made' baubles as 'shatterproof', gave them a price premium. A surprising number have survived and remain in use. “Shatterproof” is still a euphemism for plastic!

By the late 1970s Woolworths had assembled a spectacular range of Christmas decorations, with plastic shatterproof ornaments alongside traditional glass models, corsages, foil decorations, paper chains, crackers, lights and garlands. While other areas of the store struggled against increasing competition, Christmas sales rocketed, boosted by wall-to-wall television advertising.

Woolworths offered Christmas decorations right up until it closed in 2008. The decor in the 30 years between 1978 and 2008 reflected the trends of the day and Christmas continued to be an important profit centre up until the end. Today the only place to buy Woolies’ Christmas baubles are on online auction and retail sites like Ebay and Etsy.

Happy Collecting!

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A. Taylor
A. Taylor
21 feb 2022

Hello, Australia!!! I'm happy to see you here. -- Alice @ The Rum Lot

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