Posted by Iain Brunt on 12/12/2017
GLASS ORNAMENTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST ADD SPARKLE TO A CHRISTMAS PRESENT
When people look back over their lives, they often find that the memories and emotions of Christmas rise above all the other emotions in both vividness and intensity. Child-like emotions of excitement and anticipation infect even adults during this time of year. Antique Christmas ornaments can do more than anything to rekindle these emotions.
At one time 95 percent of the glass tree ornaments used on Christmas trees came from the immediate vicinity of Lauscha, near Nuremberg, Germany. Here, Louis Greiner-Schlotfeger invented the glass Christmas ball. Glass making began here in the 1590's when religious persecution forced groups of Protestant glass makers to leave their homes in Bavaria and go east to the Thuringian mountains. There they found an abundance of wood, sand, and limestone, the necessary ingredients for their craft.
Soon Lauscha became a center for making drinking glasses and bulls-eye window glass. By the middle of the 18th century, Lauscha’s glassblowers had begun to make glass beads. Soon the demands of the fashion industry made glass beads into the town’s number-one business.
But by 1845 glassblowers in Bohemia began to produce superior beads. Overnight the village lost most of its bead market to Bohemia. Fighting hard times, Louis Greiner-Schlotfeger began blowing thick-walled glass balls known as kugels, which he silvered with the Bohemian silver mirroring solution that he duplicated. These were heavy, plainly colored pieces, shaped as balls and fruits. Even though they appeared on every Christmas tree in Lauscha, the first record of glass tree balls being produced didn't appear until 1848, when "six dozen of Christmas tree ornaments in three sizes" was recorded in a glassblower's ledger.
Among the oldest Christmas tree balls made in Lauscha were schecken, meaning spotted or dappled–also known by the musical name of plumbum (pronounced plumeboom), meaning lead.
While each ornament maker created his wares in a small home workshop using his own designs, his wife took care of silvering the inside of them. After she coated the insides, she would hang them up to dry on long nails in rows from the ceiling over the stove. The following morning the silver ornaments were dipped in various colored lacquers and returned to their nails to dry. Family members helped paint trimmings, and the youngest child put on the little metal caps. Working 8 to 15 hours a day, often 6 days a week, a family could make from 300 to 600 ornaments a week.
In 1867, a gas works was built in the village and for the first time, Greiner-Schlotfeger and the other glassblowers had a steady, very hot, easily adjustable flame which allowed them to make thin-walled bubbles of glass. Using this new heat source, Greiner-Schlotfeger perfected a paper-thin, four-inch version of the old heavy kugel and in 1870, he discovered the idea for molded glass ornaments by blowing a bubble of glass into a pine-cone-shaped cookie mold.
Soon the glassblowers began making tree ornaments in the shapes of pine cones, apples, pears, and crystal icicles. In addition, they made trumpets from twisted glass straws, handblown vases, birds, multicolored acorns and elephants, ornate churches and dignified Saint Nicks. At first they were only sold through rafftrageirs, or peddlers with pack baskets, but in a short time, they were being exported to America.
By 1880, full-sized trees decorated with expensive imported German glass ornaments became the rage with the elite. American F. W. Woolworth reluctantly agreed to display a few imported German glass ornaments in his Lancaster, Pennsylvania, store in 1880. To his amazement, his original $25 shipment sold out in two days. By 1890, he was traveling to Germany to select his wares. Soon customers added one or two of these special ornaments to their paper or fabric tree decorations.
By 1890, the Lauscha glassblowers perfected the use of molds, called formsachen, in their work. Though blowing an ornament in a mold was a time-consuming but fairly simple operation, it paved the way for mass production. Skilled craftsmen made the molds from wood or clay. They
designed the object and then cast it in a plaster-of Paris-like material. With a reusable mold, the glassblowers could reproduce an ornament many times over.
Among the many beautiful glass ornaments made from molds, Santa Claus figures, known to the Lauscha galssblowers as Klausmaun, were a popular motif. Sometimes just the head was shown. But when the entire figure was made, whether wearing a long or short coat, the ornament always ended in a rounded base with no legs. In the traditional manner, Santa frequently carried a Christmas tree or bag of toys.
An enormous variety of ornaments—from over 5,000 different molds—came out of Lauscha between 1870 and 1940. Some glassblowers blew by hand. But the ultimate design was a free-blown eight-inch stork that stood majestically on a Christmas tree branch.
Some of the glassblowers specialized in free-blowing the "tree tops" shaped like the spike on a Prussian officer's helmet. They also experimented with new ways to decorate their creations and came up with etching the glass surface to give their ornaments a frosted appearance.
World War II ended Lauscha's fame as an ornament center in 1939. After the war, the border placed the village ten miles inside East Germany, but this didn't stop the glassblowers. Many fled to the West and settled in Coburg.
Soon the technical knowledge of making glass ornaments spread to Bohemia (later part of Czechoslovakia) and Russia. The glassmakers of Bohemia, long known for their sparkling red glass, adopted bead making to strings of beads for Christmas trees. They began making ornaments by the end of the 19th century and soon competed head on with the Germans.
The celebration of Christmas had always been big in Russia until the Communists came into power after the revolution in 1917. They made Christmas into an atheistic holiday and banned Christmas trees. However, in the early 1920's, Lenin, realizing that his badly floundering economy was about to go under, permitted some private enterprise. One of the first cottage industries to emerge featured hand blown, hand painted glass Christmas ornaments picturing fanciful images of Grandfather Frost, the Snow Maiden and other popular Russian folk tale figures. Glassblowers created individually handblown ornaments from the early 1920s to the 1960s. Even those of the same kind were silvered and painted entirely by hand by different artists.
HAPPY CHRISTMAS from The Antiques Almanac. Read the 2017 Holiday Edition with the theme of “Toyland,” now online. (http://theantiquesalmanac.com)