Restore them to their former glory, and they'll look as bright and radiant as they did in your childhood.

December 16, 2019
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.

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.

Related: See What Christmas Trees Have Looked Like Over the Past 100 Years

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.

Experts agree that attics and basements, prone to fluctuations in temperatures and humidity, are the worst places to store vintage ornaments. Each one should be individually wrapped in acid-free tissue paper ($13.60, amazon.com) and placed in a compartmentalized box—we like Primode's four-tray option ($14.95, amazon.com). Some dealers also tuck them inside an air-filled Ziploc bag, which provides a cushion against breakage. Moisture-trapping packs of silica gel ($9.99, amazon.com) inside the packing will also help preserve painted surfaces and prevent mildew. Choose a location that has stable, cool temperatures and low humidity—your best bet? Designate a closet shelf for your decorations.

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