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Antique Collectible

Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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German Santa Postcard. Circa 1900. Photo courtesy of Rosemary McKittrick.
You may not think of yourself as a collector but how many Christmas ornaments do you have stashed away?

Come on. Even non collectors usually add at least one ornament a year to their holiday menagerie. Or, maybe a relative adds one for you. In any case ornaments seem to spill over when the Christmas boxes come out.

Real collectors specialize in all kinds of Christmas ornaments just like you. Some only want ornaments that hang from trees. Others want standing Santas filling the nooks and crannies around the house. Other folks want Nativity scenes, snowmen, angels or reindeer.

Ornaments don’t necessarily need to be old for collectors to want them either.

The era of mass-production in the United States gave birth to a consumer economy and Christmas like a lot of other things bulged from the feeding frenzy. Can’t buy enough. Can’t get enough. Can’t have enough.

How many times have you heard someone say they’re tired of Christmas? Maybe they aren’t tired of Christmas. They’re tired of what Christmas has become.

Perhaps the longing for how it used to be makes Christmas memorabilia collectors forage antique shops and scour household sales for that scent of yesterday, that keepsake of youth gone undercover.

Nostalgia and the unmistakable artistry of turn-of-the-century decorations is what lure many collectors back in time.

Blown-glass ornaments garnished the Christmas trees in the good old days. This unpretentious craft began with a group of Protestant glass blowers in the 16th century, in the Thuringian Mountains in Germany.

To entertain themselves they blew glass balls to see how large they could make them. By the 1820s, they were silvering the insides with lead and zinc and using them as household decorations. By 1848 the ornaments were hanging on Christmas trees and the first order for Weihnachtsbaum Kugeln, Christmas balls appeared in a glass blower’s order book.

No one anticipated the boom. Before long the entire German village of Lauscha was involved in the Christmas ornament industry. The men blew the glass for the ornaments. The women did the silvering and the children applied the lacquer, paint and added the caps.

Kugeln are identified by their thick glass and dull sheen. First seen in America in the 1860s, durable construction is their hallmark. Many of these 19th century Christmas balls are still tucked away in attics and basements.

A mellowed patina gives them away. In the oldest examples both the lacquered surface and the silvered lining have a weathered look, a gracefulness of age. Any glass ball that is decorated with cotton batting, wire tinsel or silk tassels probably came from the 1890-1910 era.

Another popular trimming for collectors is the sculpted light bulbs that layered Christmas trees from the 1920s and 1930s. First produced in Vienna in the early-20th century, these lights capitalized on the invention of electricity.

American and Japanese manufacturers later crudely copied their designs. Birds, animals, flowers, fruits, Santas, comic-strip characters like Andy Gump and Little Orphan Annie all embellished Christmas trees.

Antique Santas have a real old world charm and are also highly sought after. The older Santa’s were made with cotton batting, paper mache, chenille, twigs and die cut scraps. They’re reproducing them today but most likely they’ll be missing that patina of age that only a vintage Santa has.

Condition is everything in old Christmas ornaments. Because these collectibles are used year after year expect to see some wear. Be wary if you don’t. Patina as a sign of age is the most certain way to determine if it’s old. The tone should have softly mellowed. Prices vary a lot depending on age, color, condition and manufacturer.

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