A Collector's Guide to Vintage Ornaments
Martha Whitney Butler's comprehensive guide will have you laughing and hunting your local antiques shop for fun finds!
- story and photos by Martha Whitney Butler
Aluminum Tree Ornaments
Plastic ornaments produced for mid-century aluminum Christmas trees. Makers: Jewel Brite and Bradford. These babies can be found in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.
This refers to the material and shape used to produce Christmas trees, wreaths, etc. These items really do look like they're made of bottlebrushes! Rare colors such as red, pink, and white are highly coveted.
These come in all shapes and sizes. They range from empty sleighs with reindeer to small elves whose heads can be removed. If it opens or can be stuffed, it was most likely a candy container. Empty sleighs were often filled with decorations and placed around every year as decorations after the candy was all gone.
This rotating wheel of filtered lights is traditionally plugged in and place by an aluminum tree to give it a glittering, glowing effect.
A Christmas diorama can consist of many elements, but most commonly they are adorned with Santas and reindeer placed around a cardboard chimney nucleus. Most of these are stamped “Made in Japan”. Not to be confused with indents (below).
Classified as members of the figural family (below). This term is used in reference to Shiny Brites ONLY. The Shiny Brite Co. marketed some of their ornaments under the name “fancy shapes”. Shiny Brites vary in shape and size, often taking on a mid-century design.
Feather Tree Ornaments
Similar to miniatures in size, this is another term that is used to describe ornaments less than 1 inch in diameter. Most were figural and produced pre-1920s.
Ornaments that are found in odd shapes. Figural ornaments come in many shapes and sizes. These include swans, fruit, trumpets, houses, animals, flowers, tops, Christmas trees, pinecones, baskets, acorns, etc.
This term refers to a concave feature in the design of the ornament. Indents are decorative cavities in the body of an ornament that are shaped to reflect light and come in a variety of styles. Some are very shallow, while others are so deep that they can hold an entire Christmas scene. A lot of the indents I see come through the store are filled with miniature reindeers and Santas.
Made in Poland/Poland Ornaments
Polish ornaments are fairly common and they are also among the most coveted. A lot of these ornaments were hand blown and hand painted, thus, no two ornaments are exactly the same. These are mostly found in the normal ball and teardrop shapes and many have indents and glitter. If you find an original box of these, snatch them up!
Not a planet, but a term alluding to the silvering of an ornament (similar to how mirrors are made). Many sellers call any type of silvered glass mercury glass- WRONG! TRUE mercury glass ornaments have two walls of glass with the silvering poured in between them. Seasoned vintage Christmas dealers will know the difference. Don't be afraid to ask or do some research if you're looking for true mercury glass.
This one refers to sandy or sparkly flakes used to adorn ornaments. Most of the ornaments you'll come across will actually be flocked with glitter, not mica. You will find mica on Christmas village houses and vintage dioramas more than ornaments. It usually wants to shed, so be careful!
Mini's or Miniatures
Ornaments smaller than 1 inch diameter. Maker: Shiny Brites (mostly) Make sure not to confuse these with feather tree ornaments.
The trademark sign that a glass ornament has been hand blown. A small bump is formed on the bottom or top of the piece when the process is complete. This is an indication of good quality.
A name brand ornament. They are often mixed up with Shiny Brites because of like shapes and colors. These ornaments were also popular during the mid-century era, but they are difficult to find.
The small Christmas village houses that often served as light covers. The colored cellophane in the windows is often broken out, but if it is perfect condition, you've got a real gem. These houses are often convered in mica that sheds easily.
Another famous brand of ornaments. These were very popular during the 1950s and 60s, and could be found by thousands in every five and dime across the country. These come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.
Ornaments with a solid color background and decorated with a white stenciled design.
West German/West Germany Ornaments produced in West Germany. These ornaments are not found in the same numbers as Poland and Shiny Brite ornaments, but are still fairly common. Most of the W. German ornaments I’ve seen are shaped as balls and bells, but also come in the form of a candy container. Theses are typically coated in black glitter and white mica snowflakes. The West German ornaments were the OG’s of Christmas ornaments. If you see an ornament marked W. Germany, grab it!
Ornaments that were produced during WWII. All of these ornaments had NO silvering (transparent) and were produced with paper caps because of the metal shortage during the war. I rarely see these, as they are highly collectible because of their limited production. I struggle with determining the authenticity of these if they are missing their paper tops. Sometimes the caps were replaced later. Watch out for ornaments that have simply just lost their mercury coating. A good indication is a transparent ornament with no top at all. I have a handful at the shop. One is made of beautiful cobalt blue glass.
Of course, I've barely scratched the surface of vintage Christmas collecting, but please feel free to contact me, pop into the shop, or take me out for a drink to discuss the vast world of vintage Christmas!