Silver Nitrate Steam Bath: Two unidentified workers coat the interior of clear glass balls with liquid silver nitrate and submerse them within a steam bath so that each ornament “glistens like diamonds.” Scientific American, A Weekly Review of the Progress in Industry, Science, Invention & Mechanics, October 18, 1919. Photograph reprinted with permission "Scientific American Magazine" with digital enhancement by Julia Henri.
“These could be the rarest of all the American Christmas ornaments, and we may have walked right past them a thousand times and not even realized what they were.”
Scarce, antique Christmas tree ornaments can cost seasoned collectors as much as hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars each. Often German treasures, the most ornate were manufactured during what is known the Golden Age of ornament making which spanned the late Victorian era from 1880 through the Edwardian years ending in 1910.
Some Christmas ornaments are difficult to date, according to Stuart and Kathy Gregory who have been responsible for curating the annual Antique Christmas exhibit at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio for the past 11 years.
“We rely on old photographs, catalogues, advertising and of course, we share information through The Golden Glow,” Gregory stated, referring to the respected international collectors’ organization, The Golden Glow of Christmas Past.
Stuart Gregory and his wife Kathy have been collecting ornaments for over 35 years. They are the featured speakers for the Christmas exhibit at the Taft and have appeared in print as well as television, including interviews with Martha Stewart. However, the Gregorys were stymied when presented with an article published in the October 1919 edition of Scientific American. The story claims that numerous Christmas ornament factories sprung up in answer to the embargo on German goods following World War I.
In fact, this 1919 magazine article was big news to them.
The article, published without a byline, is called Christmas Made in America. The story details the post-war development of the very first American factories solely dedicated to producing tree ornaments.
To date, there are no ornaments in existence today confirmed to have been made in these factories. In fact, there are no records that the factories ever existed aside from the photographs and published report found in this particular edition of Scientific American.
“Before the war practically all the beautifully glistening balls and other ornaments for the Christmas trees of American kiddies were made in Germany. Now with the war at an end, the German toy makers…will find the market for their goods in America at an end (as well)….”
“This Christmas, every tree in America, will be adorned with such ornaments - real American products - made by skilled American toy makers and glass blowers. Even the dyes with which these decorations are charmingly colored are American made.”
According to the magazine, the first domestic Christmas ornaments manufactured in factories appeared in toy stores during the holiday season in 1918. These ornaments “were poor and rather crude imitations of the German articles - so defective in fact that when they were hung on the trees, even the children noticed the difference and wanted to know what was the matter with Santa Claus.”
“But it is not the American spirit to give up a difficult job…and wonderful progress has been made in the past twelve months in the manufacture of blown-glass Christmas-tree decorations in this country. This year, Old Santa will find…a full stock (and) variety to select from…. Practically all the early crudeness has been polished off…and they are now quite as beautiful as any that Germany ever offered us.”
Where are they now? Presently, top Christmas collectors and dealers such as Stuart and Kathy Gregory, as well as Christmas historian and dealer David Eppelheimer, are not familiar with any of these ornaments. When contacted for comment, respected author and collector Melicent Sammis was equally surprised.
“I have spent years doing the research for my book The Art of the Lampworked Santa and find this new information quite interesting,” she said.
Eppelheimer, whose antique Christmas decorations are regularly featured in Better Homes & Gardens’ publications, Martha Stewart’s magazine and television show as well as museums and exhibitions, said that he had likewise never heard of any factories during that period in the United States. He stated that he had seen a few ornaments that might fit the description, but certainly had not heard of the factories that the Scientific American magazine alluded to.
“The style of the caps on top, what enables the ornaments to be hung on the trees, are the clue to dating many ornaments, “ Eppelheimer stated. “For instance by 1919, spring clips were around by then. On earlier versions, the caps were glued on. Caps also can tell us the country of origin. So this 1919 article is important to collectors because we’ll all be comparing the caps as referenced here to see if these ornaments exist, and I’m sure they do.”
The Scientific American article described some of that new 1919 tree decoration stock as “a good assortment of so-called irregular shapes and twisted balls.” The writer stated that there wasn’t much in the way of variety to the irregular glass designs; certainly not in comparison to what Germany had traditionally exported before the war years.
Furthermore, the American manufacturers were simply not able to produce the “fancy tree novelties” that could compare in any way to those that had made German makers famous.
“…Domestic manufacturers have not been able for various reasons to duplicate in substantial quantities…the fancy glass balls blown into the various fruit shapes, dolls, Santa Clauses and other odd and difficult modelings.”
The magazine blamed the lack of figural ornaments on the quality of American glass due to the war, “very little of American glass is sufficiently elastic to be blown into these odd shapes containing rather severe angles.”
“Most of our glass…is somewhat brittle, even the best of it, and there is an unprofitably high percentage of breakage when the more extreme fancy shapes are attempted. There is, however, a little glass made in America of nearly the proper quality and there are a few among our manufacturers of tree ornaments who are fortunate enough to have help sufficiently skilled to work this glass up properly.”
The fancy shapes, the magazine predicted, would be soon developed and ready for the 1920 Christmas market.
The most popular American Christmas ball at the time was described as having a special “sanded-glass finish.” The relatively large round baubles were blown with colored glass and then lacquered.
“While the lacquer is still wet, powdered or very fine ground glass is sprinkled lightly over them. This, when properly done, produces the rich, soft luster of velvet which glistens when the light strikes it, through what seems to be an outer dullness.”
The previous year, during 1918, the magazine claimed that ornament manufacturers had “great difficulties” with the ornaments’ dyes; especially red, which was said to have been aborted altogether early on. By 1919, while the other dyes were finally considered fast, red continued to be elusive.
“It still appears to be difficult for us to turn out a fire-red ball which is entirely satisfying. There remains a slightly perceptible brownish tint in the fire-red balls…and it is not entirely done away with, even with the very best of our (American) products. This blemishing tint will have to be completely eliminated before we can truly completely say that we manufacture fire-red glass balls in this country equal to the imported, but there is no doubt that (by) another Christmas, we will see this accomplished.”
The magazine describes these American factories in detail, although they are not identified by name nor address. Today, the business records affiliated with these glass production facilities are just as elusive as the ornaments they produced. When asked, and after a long search for any citation regarding Scientific American’s claims, the research librarians in the Rakow Library at the Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York even came up empty.
However, the old magazine’s description is enticing:
“A visit to one of Old Santa’s American Christmas tree ornament factories is an interesting experience. Besides they are probably the only factories of the kind at present in the world, as the German ornaments have never been to any extent factory-made, but mostly produced in the homes of the peasants living in the vicinity of Nuremberg which, previous to the outbreak of the war, was the great toy center of the world.”
The writer goes on to claim that a cottage industry for ornament making here in the United States, but our culture did not support the idea. Therefore, “regular factories” sprung up in New York. However, the writer neglects to mention the names or addresses of these companies, although one in particular supposedly employed a “dozen workmen, all expert glass blowers.” These workers sat in a row on a long, wooden bench and “in front of each man is a gas lamp which projects a long hot blue flame in which the glass tubes are quickly heated until the part subjected into the flame glows as red as fire.”
“The glass blower takes hold of the comparatively cool stem of the glass and putting it in his mouth blows into the red hot ball…and by careful practice, he is able to blow the ball to any size desired, whether it be small or large.”
“When this is accomplished, he places the ball into a rack…these racks hold perhaps half a dozen balls and when they are full, boys convey them to waiting girls who assort the balls as soon as they are cool, into various sizes, and carefully inspect each one for any imperfections in the blowing.”
After, “they are conveyed to a skillful young workman who, with a rubber bulb filled with silver nitrate, carefully drops in each ball a small quantity of the fluid.”
“This process (makes) the beautiful glistening effect…they sparkle like diamonds…but as the nitrate of silver would not spread on its own and evenly coat them like the back of a mirror, it is necessary for them to pass through another process.”
“So they are passed to the young man who handles the nitrate dropper and to an assistant who stands close by and quickly dips the rack of balls into a tank filled with steam. This steam has the effect of so dissolving the nitrate that it quickly spreads all over the inside of the ball and so remains after the balls are taken out of the bath.”
The final stage involves dying the ornaments, but mentioned with little detail. When “the ornaments are ready for the dye pot in which they are carefully immersed by women skilled in this delicate work. As the beauty and success of the product is almost entirely dependent upon this dying process it must be accomplished with the greatest care.”
“After the balls have been successfully dyed, they are placed upon long racks built against the walls of the factory to dry and drain. Then the workmen…carefully clip off, in a machine devised for the purpose, the long stems through which the balls were blown, leaving only an end sufficiently long to which the little gilt rings are attached from which the balls are hung by hooks from the trees…. American made balls…(have) hangers (that) are so tightly fastened to them that there is little or no danger of their coming off….”
Finally, the ornaments were packaged in pasteboard boxes and shipped out for distribution to toy stores and other retailers.
Apparently, the ornaments had a retail price that was much higher than what comparable German baubles had sold for and the Scientific American journalist urged people to buy the ornaments regardless, if only out of their sense of patriotism and support for American Made products.
The search for the mysterious American ornaments and their makers continues. In the meantime, take another look in your attic or storage facility. Maybe that box of antique ornaments contains some of the rarest of all.