Tree ornaments: from the 5 and dime to pricey collectible


The small town of Lauscha, deep in a fir tree forest in Germany's Thuringian mountains, is the birthplace of glass Christmas tree ornaments. Entire families have been making them there since the middle of the 19th century. F. W. Woolworth discovered these beautifully crafted ornaments in the 1890s on a toy-buying trip in Germany and ordered some for his original 5- and 10-cent store in Lancaster, Pa. They sold out immediately, and his subsequent orders expanded Lauscha's cottage industry and contributed to Woolworth's own success.

Woolworth's ornaments often had an American theme: Uncle Sam, American eagles and comic-strip characters. Of course, the biggest seller was Santa Claus.

These holiday decorations typically were blown by the father, who heated a clear glass tube over a flame to the right temperature and then, inserting it into a figural clay mold, blew into the tube's exposed end, making the glass expand to fit the shape of the mold. When the glass cooled, silver nitrate was swished around inside, giving the ornament a gleaming metallic internal coating. Then, other members of the family decorated the silvered images with paint.

New book

"They're still blowing Christmas ornaments in Lauscha, and now that the Berlin Wall is down, old molds, once smuggled in from East Germany, are more available and many new ornaments are being made in old molds," said Robert M. Merck, a collector of antique Christmas decorations and author of a new picture book, "Deck the Halls: Treasures of Christmas Past" (Abbeville Press, $21.95).

Mr. Merck's book is the one Christmas collectors were waiting for, and they're examining it with magnifying glasses to see every detail, oohing and ahhing over his cache. Mr. Merck's collection is so vast that the week before Thanksgiving he starts decorating the 10-foot-high tree at his Connecticut home with hundreds of vintage ornaments. He finishes two weeks later. (It's the book's centerfold.)

Within a neat wood-and-wire fence around his tree, Mr. Merck carefully places his antique Christmas toys, games, block and puzzles, like those pictured in the vintage Christmas cards, postcards, trade cards and books in his collection.

He combines glass ornaments that hang down from the tree with ones that clip on and stand upright. He has face-shaped glass lanterns that hold a candle and garlands of blown glass beads. He mixes in late-19th-century chromolithographed paper scraps and rare small hand-painted "Dresdens" made of embossed cardboard, another German cottage industry. Some Dresdens are flat while others have tiny silk bags or small pull-out cylinders concealing a small gift or candy. Very rare "Sebnitz" ornaments, also named for their German birthplace, are constructed of fine wire covered with cotton batting and wrapped with crinkly tinsel. None are longer than 4 inches and most are vehicles: cars, wagons, and baby buggies holding inch-long wax infants. Mr. Merck hangs his best Sebnitzes and Dresdens on antique table-top trees made of dyed chicken feathers.

Coal and treats

Mr. Merck's vast assemblage of tiny Christmas party favors -- made of lithographed paper, cornucopias and candy boxes shaped like miniature banjos, violins, suitcases, shoes, barrels or moon faces -- were designed with loops of thread to be hung from trees. Among his favorite candy containers are a school of three papier-mache goldfish, each with a side flap that opens to hold candy, and a papier-mache lump of coal that also opens up. "I imagine a child getting his lump of coal on Christmas morning, knowing he's been bad, then finding it's filled with treats," Mr. Merck added.

Lithographed tin clips designed to hold small white candles at the end of tree branches are decorative even without their candles. Mr. Merck no longer uses old figural Christmas lights on his tree because they become so hot they're as much a fire hazard as candles. As a result, his Uncle Sam, Statue of Liberty, clown and Halloween witch light bulb decorations that once glowed next to Mary and Joseph now rest in a display case.

Mr. Merck, who is a lawyer, says he "collects Christmas" because it brings back memories of his own childhood Christmases in Portland, Ore. Despite his horde's size, he hasn't stopped collecting, although he admits it's harder to find things lTC now than it was 12 years ago, when he first advertised in local newspapers and families would mail him Santas.

"Most of the attics have been emptied in the last eight yearwhen so many more people began collecting Christmas," he said. Over 800 kindred souls belong to the collector's club he helped launch, "The Golden Glow of Christmas Past," and more than 300 attended its August convention.

Still buying

To add to his cache, Mr. Merck now relies year-round on dealers and auctions rather than flea markets and garage sales. At Noel Barrett's June auction in New Hope, Pa., Mr. Merck paid a record $11,550 for an extremely rare 1880s lithographed paper-on-wood Christmas toy made by R. Bliss Mfg. Co. in Pawtucket, R.I. Figures of Santa and Jack-in-the-Box slide down a ladder from a balloon basket and come out the fireplace. No others like it are known to have survived.

Mr. Merck also bought some less expensive items, paying $253 for two boxed Christmas games: a Chinese & Santa Claus Puzzle by Milton Bradley with a Santa image on the cover, and a card game, the Christmas Game of Dickens, published by J. M. Wittemore of Boston. Two other Christmas theme card games estimated together at $150 to $220 fetched $550: a Christmas Stocking by McLoughlin Bros., 1889, and Santa Claus Game by Parker Bros.

Mr. Merck also spent $520 for one colorful 10-by-12-inch 1889 McLoughlin Bros. jigsaw puzzle, depicting Santa nestled snug in his bed, a different kind of Christmas good night.

Solis-Cohen Enterprises

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