America’s Most Nostalgic Christmas Ornaments

November 27, 2014 in Editorials

So many things remind us of fond childhood holiday memories and the thrilling anticipation of Christmas. For some of us, the ANTICIPATION was the best part of the entire holiday season!All through autumn we would begin suffering those little twinges until finally, on a day in early December when the Firestone Christmas albums begin to play on the stereo; Mother lets us to accompany her to the attic to retrieve the decorations! 

The first whiff of those cartons is intoxicating ~ the intermingling fragrance of ancient paper and cardboard mixed with bits of dried evergreen inadvertently packed the year before, and the heady aroma of old light strings all create a memorable perfume. 

Each carefully packed carton is a treasure trove of heirlooms and hand-me-downs: Great Grandmother’s ceramic bells and figurines, the hand-painted ornaments from a favorite aunt, some delicate antique German figural ornaments from generations before, clumps of obsolete lead tinsel, and a collection of hand-me-down Christmas lights used once but kept year-after-year, ‘just in case…’ And finally, the SHINY-BRITES, the decorations held most dear.

During the 1940s-early 1970s, millions of Shiny-Brite ornaments were produced in a myriad of forms, colors and decorations and ranged from the smallest 8mm miniature ball to the largest jumbo 6” snow-capped bell. These ornaments have become a part of our American Christmas holiday celebration. They are nostalgically regarded as symbols of magical Christmas’ past and lovingly handed down and continue to grace thousands of Christmas trees each year.

Max Eckardt created the Shiny-Brite brand in 1937. He was a German Christmas ornament importer, whose family had a long history of manufacturing ornaments and decorations in Germany. With the onset of World War II and German ornaments no longer available, Max Eckardt, with F. W. Woolworth’s (the largest Christmas retailer in the United States at the time), contracted with the Corning Glass Company to begin manufacturing glass Christmas tree ornaments in America. Corning produced ornaments for a variety of decorators and distributors, but Max Eckardt became the largest distributor of Corning ornaments under his Shiny-Brite brand.

The first Shiny-Brite ornaments of the early 1940s were primarily simple spheres in a variety of sizes with silver nitrate ‘silvered’ interiors and lacquered in a rainbow of primary hues; gold, red, cobalt blue, green and silver. Some were decorated with pastel-colored tempera paint in stripes or snow caps, or hand-painted flowers and arabesques in the style of German ornaments. There were also a few simple shapes offered at that time, including bells, reflector indents and pine cones.

As World War II continued and necessary metals and pigments were restricted for war use beginning in 1943, Shiny-Brite ornaments became clear, with no shiny silvering and colored with clear pastel lacquers or opaque enamel, usually yellow or jadeite green with contrasting stripes. Sometimes a sprig of tinsel was placed in the clear ornaments for a reflective quality, and some were hand-painted with flowers in tempera paint. One decoration that is very popular now was alternating stripes of red and green lacquer with white tempera paint heavily coated with glass glitter frit, giving a snow-frosted appearance. This is most effective on the three-tiered tree shaped bell ornament. Also at this time, metal caps and hangers went to war and were replaced with paper caps and string or paper hangers. Even after the war ended in 1945, metals were still rationed and it wasn’t until 1946 that metal caps and silvering began to return to Shiny-Brite ornaments.

Post War 1940s began the ‘hey-day’ of Shiny-Brites. Uncle Sam was now on the ornament boxes shaking hands with Santa Claus~ a wonderful Victory symbol. During this era, the printed ‘scenes and greetings’ ornaments started to be produced in earnest. The initial motifs included ‘Merry Christmas’ with a garland, ‘Christmas Greetings’ with a bell, ‘Silent Night’ with a winter church scene, ‘Merry Christmas’ with poinsettias, snowflakes, and a Christmas tree sales lot. The scenes were available printed in simple solid-color balls, with deluxe variations printed over a wide band of color on a silver background with tempera paint pin stripes. On some versions, the printed scene was embellished with glass glitter frit or Venetian dew beading. The printed scenes and greetings was an exceedingly popular line produced well into the 1960s. During the 1950s-1960s, many, many different printed motifs were developed, including toys, nursery rhymes, several different with Santa Claus, reindeer, snowmen, snowy scenes, holiday greetings, and many more. At this time, some of the rarest and most coveted are the nursery rhymes, such as ‘Little Boy Blue’, ‘Little Miss Muffet’, ‘The Cat and the Fiddle’, and ‘Little Bo Peep’.

Also during the later 1940s, several new Shiny-Brite ‘fancy’ shapes were introduced – including tops, lanterns, pendants, reflector pendants, reflector ovals, bumpy reflectors and more. These were produced with simple Christmas-color stripes, and more deluxe variations included additional embellishments of tempera paint pin striping or heavy frostings of glass glitter snow frit. Some of the lacquered colors used during 1945-1948 are exceedingly beautiful and hard-to-find. There were several shades of purple, lavender and violet, magenta and cerise, Champaign gold and Champaign pink, pale green, cobalt blue, dark red, dark gold, copper and medium blue, among others. These colors can be found on plain solid-color balls, miniature ornaments, or with printed scenes or glass glitter frit snow caps.

Pastel colored lacquers in shiny or satin finish were introduced during the 1950s, and included such tones as baby pink, baby blue, hot pink, aqua and rich gold. Reflectors and shapes with heavy glass glitter frit snow frosting continued to be popular, especially with the new pastel and rich colored lacquers under the ‘snow’. The 1950s also brought more new shapes to the line, including small-size fancy shapes such as tops, ‘UFOs’, berry clusters, lanterns, etc. These could be had in single solid-colors or decorated with bands and stripes of Christmas colors or fashion decorator colors such as purple with orange.

During the late 1950s, along with continued production of American made Shiny-Brite ornaments in every type of style and decoration, Max Eckardt began importing a variety of ornaments from Japan, including glass miniature ornaments, spun cotton angels and pine cone elves, all packaged in striking winter blue and aqua boxes. At the same time he began importing a deluxe line of hand-blown, hand-decorated glass ornaments from West Germany. These included sets of large hand-blown icicles, bells, pendants, reflectors, and more, all hand-painted with wintry motifs. Also offered were ‘modern’ glass ornaments hand-blown in the shape of snow globes with small winter scenes inside, comprised of spun cotton figures, brush trees, or glittered cardboard churches. These all came packed in bold red and green printed boxes.  Also from West Germany were decorated balls and reflector indents in fanciful color combinations, and bearing plastic caps marked ‘Shiny-Brite, West Germany’.

The early 1960s continued pretty much as the 1950s for Shiny-Brite, but as tastes changed during the later 1960s so did the Shiny-Brite assortments. Plain solid-color ornaments were favored more than heavily-decorated ones, but printed scenes and greetings continued in popularity.  New styles added at that time included deluxe satin-finish lacquers in deep jewel tones including ruby red, garnet, sapphire blue, topaz gold and emerald green with patterns and arabesques embellished with silver or gold glass glitter frit. In many cases the silver nitrate coated glass glitter frit has now oxidized to a dark gray-black color, very typical of this style ornament. Another treatment utilized mod decorator colors in alternating bands of heavy glass glitter frit frosting and pinstripes of complementary hues, such as lime green with turquoise blue, bright yellow with orange, turquoise with purple and fuchsia pink with red. Another popular Shiny-Brite treatment of the late 1960s had shaded airbrushed lacquers in contrasting or complementary color combinations on plain ball, bell and rounded teardrop and pendant shapes. Some of the color combinations were cobalt blending to gold to red, cobalt to gold to turquoise, gold to pink to green, cerise to gold to red, and so on. This finish, sadly, tends to scratch very easily.

By the 1970s, American manufacturers were fighting stiff competition from inexpensive imports, so to hopefully better survive, the Max Eckardt Company merged with Poloron in 1972. Poloron was a blow-mold plastics manufacturer specializing in coolers, ice chests and outdoor lighted Christmas décor. During the Poloron era of the 1970s, glass Shiny-Brite ornaments continued to be produced in many of the same treatments as during the late 1960s, primarily printed decorations embellished with glitter. Poloron also imported a large line of Asian Christmas decorations under the Shiny-Brite brand. In spite of this valiant attempt to keep Shiny-Brite alive, the brand faded during the late 1970s and Poloron closed in 1981.

But Shiny-Brite was not without its many fans… In 2001, Christopher Radko acquired the Shiny-Brite name and trademarks and began to recreate glass ornaments in the style of vintage Shiny-Brite ornaments. These are not exact reproductions, but beautifully made to evoke the same nostalgic feelings as the originals, and are marketed as ‘Just like Grandma’s!’. Some, such as the popular ‘scenes and greetings’ motifs, are very authentic, while other shapes and finishes were never envisioned by Max Eckardt, with a more modern, contemporary style. The Christopher Radko ornaments are clearly marked on the caps ‘Radko Shiny-Brite’, so cannot be confused with vintage Max Eckardt Shiny-Brite ornaments, but will truly complement any tree decorated with vintage ornaments.

Our beloved vintage Shiny-Brite ornaments are becoming increasingly difficult to find as collectors fight to acquire these cherished relics of our childhoods. For a list of shops offering vintage Shiny-Brite ornaments, please see this month’s Busy Bee Trader cover!

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