kugeln

Christmas tree ornaments

The ornaments on display on the museum Christmas tree did not belong to the Glessner family, but many are of the period.  Most of the ornaments came from Florence Gibson, a long-time neighborhood resident who lived for many years at 217 E. Cullerton Street.  The daughter-in-law of the official photographer of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Florence Gibson was a member of the 93ers, a group of Exposition attendees who would gather (often in period costume) to reminisce about the fair and days gone by.  When she broke up her home in the 1970s, many of her possessions were brought to the museum by her long-time friend Jack Simmerling.

Christmas ornaments evolved throughout the second half of the nineteenth century as Christmas trees became a popular holiday decoration in American homes.  The earliest decorations used were sweets and out-of-seasons foods.  These were considered delicacies in winter, before refrigeration and shipping allowed widespread access to these foodstuffs.  Popcorn and cranberries were strung and hung on the tree, as they still are today.  Cookies, nuts, and other sweet treats were hung on branches with a loop of string or thread.  Fruit, a prized rarity before refrigeration, and unwrapped gifts, were tucked into the branches of the tree.

Edible ornaments eventually gave way to a variety of inexpensive store-bought and home-made decorations.  After the Civil War, when Christmas cards became popular, families saved the pictures from these cards, framing them in gold tinsel, lace and ribbon to hang on the branches of the tree.  Images used ranged from traditional Christian symbols to flowers, hearts, and American flags.  Tinsel, or lamé, as it was originally called (developed by the French in the 16th century for use on military uniforms) was adapted by German manufacturers for Christmas decoration.  This spiky-looking garland resembled silvered pine needles, and could be bent into a wide variety of shapes to ornament Christmas trees: stars, hearts, wreaths, pretzels, and tear-drops.  Nineteenth century tinsel ornaments are the rarest ornaments today.  The German city of Dresden produced elaborate silver and gold-embossed paper ornaments depicting carriages, animals, and more.  Magazines in the 1880s featured instructions for complicated decorations which could be made at home from paper, cardboard, papier-mâché, cotton batting, and lace.  Some home-made ornaments combined traditional food decorations with new products, such as nuts wrapped in gold foil, which were hung on the branches.

The glass Christmas ball still used today was invented in the German mountain town of Lauscha, which had been famous for its glass industry for centuries.  Lauschian glass-blowers developed thick glass balls called “kugeln” in the 1820s, which were hung from the ceiling or tree at Christmas time.  In the 1870s, Lauschian glassblower Louis Greiner-Schlottfeger developed a method of making these balls paper-thin by blowing glass into a wooden cookie mold.  He used a previously-developed silvering solution to coat the inside of the ball and give it a mirror-like shine.  His delicate glass balls were an instant commercial success, and before long they were manufactured in thousands of different shapes: cherubs, snowmen, Santas, houses, churches, vases, musical instruments, butterflies (with silk wings), and songbirds with spun glass tails.  Kugeln were even created in the shape of food used to decorate trees, such as nuts and fruit.  Some were shaped as hot-air balloons and zeppelins, a reflection of the era’s fascination with “modern” light aircraft.  Other manufacturers soon followed, such as the porcelain makers in the cities of Dresden and Delft.  Long famed for their fine ceramic wares, these cities produced porcelain ornaments shaped like roses, hearts and stars which could be hung on the sturdier branches of the Christmas tree.  Other centers of glass production, such as Czechoslovakia, exported quantities of glass beads which were strung together into ropes of garland.

In 1880, German-made kugeln ornaments became widely available in America.  That year, F. W. Woolworth purchased $25.00 worth of these glass balls from a toy importer and sold out in two days.  In 1890, Woolworths’ 200,000 German glass ornaments still did not meet public demand; each successive year the store sold out of the ornaments.  In spite of this popularity, glass ornaments did not replace all other types of decoration used on the Victorian-era Christmas tree.  Commercially-produced ornaments were still relatively expensive; they were sold singly or in pairs by toy manufacturers or catalog companies such as Sears Roebuck and Woolworths, so most Christmas trees were covered with an array of handmade and store-bought ornaments.