Vintage Vignette - Dec 2017/Jan 2018
- by Martha Whitney Butler
Up on the rooftop - okay - in the attic, (close enough) lurks a gold mine in that silverfish-infested cardboard box of Grandma's old ornaments.
Your mind begins to flood with nostalgia as you reminisce about decorating the tree and sipping hot cocoa with Granny - then you open the box and memories turn to nightmares as you come face-to-saggy-face with a 50s Santa doll.
Okay, maybe it's not so bad, but you have to admit that Serial Killer Santa boasts a rather terrifying expression compared to our jolly present-day version. Even the tiny plastic reindeer have red, glassy eyes...
I don't know what makes them all seem so creepy. Perhaps it's because they are relics of the ghosts of good times past, only released from their cardboard confinement once a year... or maybe their face just melted a little up there in the attic.
Around that time, German artisans set a successful trend with hand-blown glass and embossed cardboard ornaments. These can be found in a variety of shapes, sizes, and functions. A sought-after version of glass ornaments is a "kugel," often found in a grape cluster or fruit shape. Cardboard ornaments from Dresden, Germany were a hit as well, and are highly coveted among today's collectors.
It's rumored that F.W. Woolworth tested the waters with cost-effective glass Christmas ornaments from a small German village and capitalized on the cottage industry by introducing them in his chain stores. This started a movement of mass production, so when seeking out these ornaments, keep in mind the delicate, hand-blown ones without a mold seam are the most valuable.
More German ornaments and décor include paper mâché Santas, candy containers, spun cotton elves, and chalkware nativity figurines. But perhaps one of their most notable productions is of a mythical Christmas figure often dismissed as a traditional Santa or elf - the dreaded Belsnickel.
In true "good cop/bad cop" fashion, he throws the candles at the feet of the "good" children and sternly raps the knuckles of those too anxious to take their gift. After his abusive reminder to refrain from succumbing to avarice, he sends Santa in later to make nice with the kiddies by showering them with gifts. Some traditions are better left across the pond... Or are they?
When searching for the rare Belsnickel, look for paper mâché, chalkware, and cardboard German versions.
As quickly as these imported seasonal sensations became affordable to the masses, their prices began to climb due to trading complications and the growing threat of war with Germany. Manufacturers like Woolworth's began to seek other alternatives to cheap production and turned their attention to the East.
While still very collectible and valuable, Japanese Christmas décor is the most common vintage find because it was available at every five-and-ten store around. With the overseas sweat-shop labor, they were very affordable to the masses. When the US entered World War II, these imports fell out of favor in the States and manufacturers began to seek American-made products.
At the beginning of the war, the nitrates used to silver and shiny up the ornaments became scarce and ornaments were a little less bright and shiny. These ornaments and those marked "Made in Occupied Japan" appeal to collectors because they serve as a wartime reference.
Safer than candles, these strands of multi-colored lights brought the ultimate wow factor to the Christmas scene. Mall Santa seemed to ditch the scary paper mâché mask for a more realistic white beard... and children still cried when they sat in his lap.
Serial Killer Santa with the angry rubber face was a favorite stuffed toy for kids all over and a less-breakable plastic nativity scene became the household preference. Christmas spilled out into lit-up lawns and the neighborhood competition heightened. Among the most fun collectibles from this era are feather trees, tinsel trees, and figural light bulbs.
Questions about your vintage Christmas décor? Email Martha Whitney