From Victorian-era handblown glass stars to atomic-age thermoplastic reindeer, vintage ornaments are prized for their whimsy and unique charm. These classic motifs tell a rich story of Christmas past.
Cute as a Button
This cardboard snowman, possibly intended for placement under a tree, was one of many traditional ornaments made in Japan in the 1950s. "They were first brought to America in the 19th century," says Fritz Karch, an antiques dealer based in Hopewell, New Jersey, and an avid collector of ornaments, who curated this story. "At that time, F. W. Woolworth had great success with German factories creating them for his stores in the States." With his monocle and pipe-cleaner mustache, this dapper fellow has personality to spare.
2 of 16
Think of star and snowflake ornaments as jewelry for your tree. Spiky versions in paper or clear plastic add graphic punch, while shimmery specimens made of mercury glass, tin, or tinsel reflect light and impart shine. "Early trees were, of course, lit with candles," says Karch. "The effect of flickering light on a beveled metal ornament would have been quite beautiful."
3 of 16
Highly coveted Dresden ornaments, constructed of silver- or gold-faced embossed cardboard, were made in Germany, mostly between the late 19th century and World War I.
4 of 16
This is the oldest ornament in our story -- a pressed-lead 12-point star that dates to 1870s Germany.
5 of 16
The German-American custom of the putz -- the miniature Christmas village under the tree, typically including a manger scene -- gave rise to the tradition of trimming the tree itself with tiny replicas of cottages, churches, and shops made from handblown glass, plastic, and paper. "When it comes to cardboard cottages, the ones with little trees still attached are most sought after," says Karch. "They're the first things to break off."
6 of 16
In the States, World War II metal shortages inspired homemade foil-covered ornaments.
Swipe here for next slide
7 of 16
The cutout windows of this 1930s celluloid house allow tree lights to shine through.
8 of 16
It's not all about Rudolph. The famous red-nosed charmer -- the creation of a copywriter for Montgomery Ward & Co. -- didn't prance onto the holiday scene until 1939. The earliest reference to Santa's singular mode of travel actually dates to 1821, when an anonymous New York illustrator depicted "Old Santeclaus" riding in a sleigh, pulled by a single reindeer.
9 of 16
Though somewhat faded, the red nose on this rubberized-plastic piece from the late '60s or early ’70s distinguishes the figure as dear old Rudolph.
10 of 16
Silver Reindeer Ornament
Silver nitrate poured inside clear handblown glass gives this 19th-century reindeer its silver shimmer.
11 of 16
Larger figures, such as this thermoplastic version, often came in teams along with a sleigh, and were meant to go on a mantel or under a tree.
12 of 16
"Instruments are classic emblems of Christmas festivities," says Karch. "Think of church bells, handbells, and general merrymaking." German glass artisans flaunted their craftsmanship with dainty versions that rang and tiny horns that could be blown. Later styles, made from a range of materials including glass and plastic, were more ornamental than functional -- and included the occasional saxophone.
Swipe here for next slide
13 of 16
Made from a single rod of handblown glass, this horn has a working kazoo inside.
14 of 16
A clapper makes this hand-painted glass bell notable.
15 of 16
The very earliest Christmas ornaments? Fresh fruit. The practice dates back to the 14th century, when apples were hung on evergreen trees to serve as props for the miracle plays presented in churches on December 24. "For many early Americans, hanging citrus on a Christmas tree would have been an extra-special treat," says Karch. The cornucopia of faux produce created for the holidays eventually grew to include colorful berries, beets, and mushrooms made of cotton batting, glass, and plastic.
16 of 16
Pressed-cotton ornaments like this pear, made by gluing layers of cotton batting on a wire frame, were a more durable alternative to glass.