Collecting Victorian Christmas Ornaments With Melanie Thomas

This week on The Collectors Show we talk with Melanie Thomas about collecting Victorian Christmas ornaments. Melanie is a frequent contributor to Antique Trader Magazine and has written an article for Antique Trader magazine about this topic. She and her husband own and operate the Arsenal of the Alleghenies in Gettysburg, PA.

To hear Melanie, go to or iTunes.

Below are portions of an article Melanie wrote for “Antique Trader” magazine. To read the entire article go to:

Like most items still in use today, Christmas tree ornaments have evolved over the decades. From the original ones made from things found in nature to ornate hand blown, leaded glass, the tradition remains a strong one throughout the Christian world. 

This collage of ornaments represents the popularity of Victorian ornaments among Christmas ornament collectors.

This collage of ornaments represents the popularity of Victorian ornaments among Christmas ornament collectors.

For simplicity’s sake, these decorations are divided into four categories: organic items such as dried fruits; spun cotton; die cut paper; and blown glass.As early as 1848, an edition of the London News showed Queen Victoria with her family standing around a decorated tree. Some historians believe the Christmas tree tradition was in the United States as early as the 1700s, brought here by German Hessians, mercenary soldiers hired by the British to quash the upstart American revolutionaries. If they did trim Christmas trees in the 1700s, early American puritan roots would have prohibited frivolity on one of the holiest days of the year, forcing the Hessians to celebrate in private. It would take Queen Victoria to make the decorated tree acceptable and stylish.

The first glass ornaments replicated their earlier counterparts, shaped like fruit and other edibles. As the craft of glass blowing advanced, the molds became more intricate, creating items such as grape clusters and butterflies. Spun glass accented by elaborate threads of silver showcased the craftsman’s skill. Ornaments shaped like birds were a favorite theme, with feathers glued on as wings, glass beads added for eyes and wire tinsel for legs. Because each ornament was handmade, they were all considered one-of-a-kind.

F.W. Woolworth of the famous five-and-dime store chain, brought blown glass German ornaments to the American market in the 1880s. Not impressed at first, Woolworth thought the market for these high-priced gewgaws was miniscule. Urged by his employees, however, he eventually went to Germany to check it out for himself. Finally convinced of their marketability, Woolworth’s Five and Dime stores sold out their first order in just a few weeks. Within 10 years, Woolworth’s supposedly sold $25 million worth of German-made glass ornaments. With the average price between 5 and 10 cents, imagine the millions of ornaments Americans consumed for their Christmas trees.

The start of World War I brought the importation of all German goods to a halt, allowing competitors to fill the void. Japan and Czechoslovakia exported millions of ornaments to the United States, but the quality and attention to detail left something to be desired when compared to the German-made ones.

Early Christmas ornaments are highly sought after by collectors. As with all collectibles, condition and rarity factors are keys in determining value. The intricate spun glass type can easily sell for $200 to $300, but early cotton ornaments can still be found for as little as $25.

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