Glass Christmas Ornaments

by Mark A. Nye
Issue No. 260 - December 1994

This month's article is a reprint of an article that first appeared in China, Glass, and Lamps, January 8, 1912. It has nothing to do with Cambridge but nonetheless I thought it might be of interest to members. The article does give an insight into the Christmas tree ornament business as it was over 80 years ago. Why it would have originally appeared after Christmas is somewhat of a mystery.

"Although Christmas has come and gone it is not so far in the past as to make us forget the dazzling beauty of the many glass ornaments which adorned the tree of rich and poor alike, and the following from a consular report will still be of interest:

Long before Christmas is thought of by the general public, industrious hands in home and workshop are working busily to produce articles which help to make the festival prettier and more enjoyable.

The acknowledged German center of the glass Christmas-tree ornament production is in the Thurigian Mountains, 25 miles distant from Coburg, where almost the entire population is dependent on this industry. It is here that Christmas is really appreciated and man, wife, and child work uninterruptedly, even the smallest children helping as soon as they can use their hands. In the small village of Lauscha, at the end of the branch railroad line running from Coburg, the largest quantities of glittering Christmas-tree ornaments are made.

The writer has often had the pleasure of investigating their manufacture, which is not only interesting and instructive, but also unique. Fine glass blowing is done in every house and hut, and the majority of the inhabitants who work on these articles show great talent and dexterity in producing the delicate, fragile balls, stars, etc.

The glass tubes are bought by the inhabitants from a local glass factory, being either of thick or thin glass, depending altogether on the article to be produced. To blow the various ornaments, these tubes are held over gas flame, which comes out a sort of Bunsen burner affixed to the edge of the table so arranged that air can be mixed with the gas by means of a bellows worked by the foot. The tubes are heated in this manner to a point where they become soft, and a light 'puff of breath' is then sufficient to expand the glass mass, although the blower must calculate the pressure of air to be blown into the tube with care and dexterity, as otherwise the glass immediately assumes a much larger size than that desired.

The professional blowers understand how to give the mass of glass every possible form simply by blowing and pulling. They make animals of every description, a specialty of theirs being reindeer, with delicate legs and huge antlers. Then there are airships, and balloons, flying the American flag if intended for the United States, while the commoner glass Christmas-tree ornaments, known to every child, are made in profusion.

Perhaps the most difficult article made is the imitation carnation or rose, where every individual petal had to be formed separately and then attached to the body. This is done by hand, the various parts being fused on, as is also the case when the bodies of animals have their legs, ears, and all other protruding parts attached.

Although the glass article is then finished, it has a very lifeless, disappointing appearance, and cannot be sold till the necessary 'charm and grace' is given by means of 'color'. All the beauty of the light glass articles is brought out by the shining, sparkling color. The glass blower, however, does not attend to this branch of manufacture, because the highly colored glass is very seldom used for the simple reason it is too expensive. This coloring of the glass ornaments is generally attended to by women and children. When a finer article is desired, it is given to more artistic hands which understand how to use a brush.

Glass balls are painted with rings or other designs, and the other articles are also decorated with a brush. The common round glass balls which are used to decorate the Christmas tree, either singly or strung together in chains, are usually colored on the inside. This is done either by dipping the article in a thin, cheap coloring liquid or gold and silver bronze in a liquid state is poured into the interior. In this manner, gold and silver balls are obtained, which look pretty and keep their color a long time, but which, on the other hand break at the least pressure. Coloring by simply dipping the glass article in a liquid color is very easy mechanical work, which is mostly done by small children.

A great deal of care must be taken in packing glass ornaments, as otherwise, on arrival at their destination the cases would be found full of nothing but thin, sharp pieces of glass. Cardboard boxes divided into 12 compartments, are used, and the glass ornaments which are sold per dozen, are laid in very light cheap cotton batting, which lightens the pressure and prevents rattling, thus protecting the contents. The goods must, of course, be offered as cheaply as possible to insure large sales, for otherwise, the profit to the middleman and merchant would be too small after payment of freight and duty. Consequently, the profit of the producer is small, but his tastes are simple, the small amount earned looks quite respectable to his eyes.

These Christmas-tree ornaments weigh so very little that they are as a rule sent to their destination by parcel post instead of shipped by rail. From the middle of November up to Christmas Eve, the number of packages of Christmas-tree ornaments passing through Coburg from Lauscha and other mountain towns is so large that not only extra men are needed in the post offices, but also additional mail coaches must be attached to nearly every train."

China, Glass, and Lamps; January 8, 1912