Learn how to properly clean and store vintage Christmas ornaments—these antiques will be restored to their former radiant glory.

Updated December 03, 2020
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Credit: Roland Bello

Open a box of antique ornaments, and the past comes rushing back. Heirlooms eagerly brought out from storage each year and decades-old pieces picked up at antique shops aren't just tree trimmings—they're cultural artifacts, insights into past generations. Most of us, of course, just look at these vintage ornaments as talismans of our own histories. That's why it's important to keep these valuables in pristine condition. Here's how to do it, according to archival and organizing experts.

Inspect and Clean by Type

If your glass ornaments seem dirty, hold each up to a light to look for "crizzling," or fine cracks. This is a symptom of "sick glass" (a term for glass with a permanent loss of clarity), and it may first appear as a cloudy haze. Don't try to clean crizzled or otherwise damaged glass yourself; you might accelerate the deterioration. Instead, leave the job to a professional conservator. To find one, contact the American Institute for Conservation and the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation.

If there are no signs of crizzling, see if the ornaments are painted. Some, particularly those made before the 1960s, are painted on the surface. These and more ornate ornaments shouldn't undergo wet cleaning. Instead, dust lightly with a soft sable brush—you can find them at craft supply stores, or online. We like Golden Maple's brush set ($15.99, amazon.com). If your ornaments are unpainted (or painted on the inside), you can use a cotton swab moistened with distilled water; first test on a tiny area, and then roll the swab gently around the glass.

If any dirt remains, use a mild solution made from one part ethanol (also labeled "denatured alcohol"), one part water, and just a few drops of ammonia, applying it in the same fashion. Never use commercial cleansers, which are often too strong for vintage glass.

Group and Store Them

Precious holiday heirlooms can get scratched, cracked, or (gulp) broken when stowed in a jumble of decorations. To keep yours intact, steer clear of the catchall bin. Smaller boxes protect these pieces from their weightier counterparts, says Ashley Murphy, cofounder of home-organizing company Neat Method. Follow these steps to keep yours safe and sparkling, year after year.

Wrap them in acid-free tissue paper ($13.60 for 200 sheets, amazon.com), and place ornaments that are similar in size and weight together in metal or wooden boxes, since plastic traps moisture (IKEA has good selections of both). Then pad open spaces with extra tissue paper or white dish towels. Uniform vessels streamline your packing: You'll get familiar with how to configure their contents, and they'll stack well with little risk of toppling.

Stick on a "fragile" note and indicate what's inside (e.g., "Grandma's Ornaments" or "Glass Animals"). Keep the boxes stowed away in a closet or under a bed, rather than in the attic or basement, where big swings in temperature and humidity can warp antique pieces.

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