May Your Christmas Be Shiny and Brite
Colorful glass ornaments are so synonymous with American Christmas that you may assume they’ve been around forever. Think back to drawing Christmas trees as a child. What did you add? Little globes of color and light and a star at the top, right?
While the story of the American Christmas ornament is still being written each and every December, it began with one brand, a brand created by a German-American immigrant in the face of World War II. That brand is Shiny Brite.
Let’s take a little trip back to the mid-1800s. Christmas was just taking on the national fanfare that it has today. The concept of having a festive evergreen in your home was gaining popularity in the states, and decorating with common household items like beads, nuts and strung fruit was the go-to.
Across the ocean, in a German village called Lauscha, blown glass baubles with hand-painted accents were all the rage. American retail giant Woolworths took notice and, seeing the business potential, began importing the magical orbs to sell to families across the United States. Christmas decorations were en vogue, and fashion magazines pushed glitter and glitz in the form of holiday decor.
Enter Max Eckhardt. As a native of a small village near Lauscha, Eckhardt knew the appeal of glass ornaments and saw their potential in the American market. Like Woolworths, Eckhardt spent the early 20th century importing lovingly handcrafted baubles from his homeland.
Come the mid-1930s, the impending war caused an understandable shift in Eckhardt’s business planning. Tensions between Germany and America would be sure to throw a wrench in any previously established trade. Because of this, it was important to find a way to move his business stateside.
From his home in New York City, Eckhardt reached out to glass manufacturing giant Corning. With some clever tweaks to their trusty light bulb production machinery, the company found a way to churn out glass ornaments. With this partnership, Shiny Brite was born.
An interior silver nitrate coating gave the clear glass “bulbs” a trademark sheen, and hand-applied accents lent the pieces that traditional handmade feel. When unnecessary metal usage was prohibited at the height of the war, the silver nitrate fell by the wayside, and the metal caps were replaced with card stock styles. For a short period of time, shiny tinsel was placed in the clear glass orbs. Shortly thereafter, tinsel was restricted as a non-essential, and the company moved on to producing clear balls with simple stripes painted along the exteriors.
Sales held strong for the patriotic company with the charming American-made baubles, and the following decade saw a great boom in business. By the late 1940s, materials restrictions were lifted, and post-war America was ready to move away from serious, understated wartime fashion and decor. Around this time, Corning is said to have manufactured an estimated 30,000 Shiny Brites a day
1950s Christmas decor enthusiasts saw the return of lively technicolor styles and, yes, the metal topper. This time, the toppers were adorably crimped and scalloped. As the largest ornament manufacturer in the world, Shiny Brite proudly stamped, “Made in U.S.A.” along the upper edge of their caps. Although the pieces were no longer hand-decorated, they took the forms of exciting shapes like pine cones, bells, lanterns and icicles.
Artificial trees and hyper-affordable, easily-produced plastic ornaments of the 1960s and 70s ushered out the reign of the original Shiny Brites. Gleaming aluminum trees and electric color wheels simply didn’t require high-shine, glittering glass bulbs to stand out, as they were a statement unto themselves.
Over the years, vintage Shiny Brites have remained popular, acting as a sort of time capsule of American history. Original boxes can command anywhere from tens to hundreds of dollars depending on the quality and age. Unearthing a cache of Shiny Brites in an estate always brings a smile to our faces, no matter the value.
Dating Shiny Brites
If you’re interested in dating your own Shiny Brites or simply want a head start on differentiating between the different styles you may come across in your estate sale shopping, the key is to check the topper and the decoration.
- Silver-tone metal toppers
- Orbs and shapes
- Hand-decorated clear and colored glass
- Silver nitrate coated interiors
- Spheres, Americanized Santa shapes and early Deco styles
- Spheres, bells, pyramids, reflectors, pine cones, acorns, oblongs and diamond shapes
- Metal cap toppers
- Hand-decorated exteriors
- Cardboard and paper toppers with yarn hangs
- “Non-silvered” transparent orbs with tinsel inside
- “Non-silvered” transparent or opaque orbs with simple, pastel hand-painting
- Boxes often featured Santa shaking hands with Uncle Sam
- Colorful orbs and shapes
- Silver nitrate coated interiors
- Crimped, scalloped metal toppers marked “Made in U.S.A.” and “Shiny Brite”
If you’re like us, you’re ready to make your house a home for the holidays with some beautiful vintage decor! Keep an eye out at local estate sales all year long, especially in the muggy heat of summer when visions of sugar plums aren’t dancing in the heads of your fellow treasure hunters. You never know. You might find a shiny, bright holiday jackpot.