Sunday, December 21, 2008

Have a ball!!

By now, those who celebrate Christmas are looking at a tree filled with ornaments, but in the 19th century, those with the most glass balls were the winners since only the very wealthy could afford glass balls. Glass balls come to us through Bohemia (Czech), and, according to research, they are the result of some end of the day shenanigans by glass blowers in the late 1700s-early 1800s.

The glass blowers would have contests to see who could blow the largest ball before it burst…this bottle is actually from a modern contest held to see who could blow the biggest bottle! It is signed and dated December 28, 1979…boys never outgrow their games! But, Southern New Jersey used to be renowned for its glass making.

Anyway, the wives would collect the balls and swirl silver nitrate inside to color them, and they took them to local Christmas markets…see…those of you who do craft fairs are following centuries old traditions! These balls were sold as Christmas balls to avert evil from the home over Christmas, or hung or stuck onto sticks in the hallway of the house.

For a time, the balls fell out of favor being labeled witches’ balls as the early missionaries tried to convert people to Christianity.

In 1863, Lauscha, Bohemuia got Gas (and no, it was not from overeating), and this made glass blowing much easier. The glass could be blown much thinner without bursting, and it was possible to use wooden molds to blow the glass into to create shapes and 'figurals'.

By the 1870s, the balls were being exported to England and to America where the East Coast became very fashionable with their glitter and glass. The rest of America still used home made decorations as the pioneer spirit was not into high fashion.

But, the history of the Christmas ball, as we baby boomers know it, is tied to the man behind the Shiny Brite boxes…the sight of which turns me into a 5 year old!

The Germans had cornered the market by the Depression, and Max Eckhardt realized that the future hostilities…which became WW II would impact his ornament trade. In the late 30’s, he and buyers from F.W.Woolworth, the largest seller of Christmas ornaments in the country, persuaded Corning Glass to make the ornaments in the U.S. Corning adapted one of their light bulb machines (still can be see in the Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI).

By 1940 Corning was making about 300,000 ornaments a day, compared with the perhaps 600 for a skilled German glassblower, and sending them to other companies for decoration. The largest customer was Max Eckhardt who opened an American company known as Shiny Brite. Initially Shiny Brite Ornaments were lacquered by machine on the outside and then decorated by hand.
The following year the ornaments were silvered on the inside so they would remain “shiny bright” for longer periods, but WWII intervened and material shortages caused the company to decorate the clear glass balls with simple thin stripes in pastel colors which didn’t require as much metallic oxide pigment. Corning, moreover, was able to alter its machines to produce a greater variety of shapes and sizes of glass ball without using scarce war material.

But the necessities of war persisted and the sturdy metal cap that held the little hook for hanging the ornaments had to give way to cardboard and often you had to provide your own hanging device. Here is a close up of a ball with the paper cap.
Today, Christopher Radko, the entrepreneur who discovered and recreated many of the historic glass ornament molds from Germany and Czechoslovakia, has recreated much of the Shiny Brite ornament collection. Interestingly, many of the vintage ornaments are still available. People do take care, and I am always searching for them at auctions and sales.

While I appreciate the reproductions...and they will have their value in 100 still is inspiring to find the old think of the trees they adorned and to give them a chance to live again.

So, in the spirit of glass and glitter, whatever you celebrate this time of year...may it fill you with a "shiny brite" glow!


Anonymous said...


I just love shiny brite ornaments. It is my wish one day to have a beautiful tree decorated in only the "old" ones. Thanks for the lesson.


Susie said...

Hi Susan! I so enjoy your show and tells! Your pictures were wonderful and brought back many shiney bright moments for me too.
The Polka Dot Rose

Unknown said...

Susan, As always I love your blog. I actually own a witch's ball and had no idea that is where it's name came from. I also own a box of shiny brites... I always have my open, but have never found a box anywhere. Guess I will have to come shop with you! Merry Xmas, Tedi

P.S. You had me laughing out loud at TA's blog... it was the pits!

Patricia said...

and a shiny brite Christmas to you too. Loved the blog,


Eileen & Karen said...

I always enjoy your blog Susan! Your a wealth of knowledge!

gail said...

Hi Susan,, I love the vintage glass ornaments! And I have learned something new this year about them. As always thanks for sharing your knowledge on antiques. I look forward to it every week ;) I hope you and your husband have a wonderful, safe and healthy holiday! Hugs, gail

Carolee Crafts said...

The vintage ornaments are just beautiful, thank you for sharing.

Have a Happy Christmas


cathy said...

I remember seeing those ornaments on my parents' tree when I was kid. They might still have some. I'm going to check next time I'm over there.
Fascinating, informative post as usual.

Miniature Patisserie Chef said...

Hi Susan,

Thanks again for such an interesting post. Though I do not collect christmas ornaments, but it is interesting to know how much they evolved and the work all that has been put in!

Merry christmas!

Pei Li

Michelle May-The Raspberry Rabbits said...

Recently I've seen a lot of the Shiney and Bright ornaments offered in the antique shops around here. Someone must have unloaded a bunch this year. They are so pretty!
Have a great Christmas Susan!
bunny kisses,

Shabby in Pink Boutique said...

I must say I am fascinated by old ornaments! They are my favorite! Wishing you a Very Merry Christmas & Happy New Years!

Carolyn Kocman said...

a wealth of usual. kudos to the german gotta LURVE that stuff.

Deb said...

Hi Susan,

Love all the pictures of vintage ornaments! I just found a box of Shiny Brites at the thrift store last week but they are plain red, not decorated pretty like yours. I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas and a happy New Year!

Holiday hugs,