Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

From Light Bulbs to Christmas Baubles

December 5, 2013

If you’ve visited Henry Ford Museum, you may know that Corning Glass Works’ patented ribbon machines manufactured incandescent bulb blanks faster than ever before. But did you know that these machines could also mass-produce Christmas ornaments?

By the 1950s, a retrofitted glass ribbon machine at Corning’s Wellsboro, Pennsylvania plant could turn out 1,000 glass ornament bulbs per minute! Read on to discover how a bit of innovative engineering, a world war, and some prodding from industry leaders helped Corning become America’s primary glass ornament supplier. (To see our 1928 Corning Glass Ribbon Machine, look here.)

Left: Corning glass ribbon machine #3 demonstrates incandescent lamp bulb manufacture at Henry Ford Museum
90.349.1 (THF88991). Right: A retrofitted ribbon machine shapes glass ornament bulbs at Corning’s Wellsboro, Pennsylvania plant in 1940. “Popular Science,” January 1941, Benson Ford Research Center.

Americans flirted with imported glass Christmas tree ornaments before the Civil War, and by the 1890s, it seemed they were in love. European artisans turned out huge quantities of shiny glass ornaments for the American market—glassblowers in Lauscha, Germany produced 600 ornaments per day! The affair even outlasted the blockades and embargoes of World War I, although American consumers nearly exhausted huge quantities of German ornaments stockpiled before the war. A few domestic manufacturers tried, but could never quite master the intricate glassblowing techniques or silvered lacquers that made European ornaments so popular. As postwar production ramped up overseas in the 1920s, European imports grew to 99% of the 50 to 80 million ornaments sold in the United States each year.

Left: This shiny bauble – called an indent because of its concave floral design - is representative of the German ornaments exported to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Its detailed form and silvered finish were nearly impossible for American glassmakers to replicate. 2004.87.26 (THF155292), Gift of family of Joseph & Helen (Szczepaniak) Lyk. Right: An American Christmas tree laden with imported glass ornaments served as a backdrop for this holiday snapshot taken around 1935. 96.119.1 (THF43930)

Stateside importers and retailers had a great deal to lose should anything impede the lucrative European-American ornament trade. One major stakeholder was the F.W. Woolworth Company. F.W. Woolworth first imported European glass ornaments in the 1890s, and by the 1930s, consumers depended on Woolworth stores nationwide for their yearly Christmas decorations. Max Eckardt, a German immigrant, also relied on the success of the ornament industry. Eckardt—who began importing ornaments around 1907, opened his own German ornament factory in 1926, and oversaw product distribution from his offices in New York City—had extensive knowledge of the German-American Christmas trade. In the late 1930s, as World War II rumbled ominously on the European horizon, he set out to secure the future of his ornament business on American soil.

In the summer of 1939, just as an Allied blockade of threatened to sever the German ornament supply, Eckardt and a representative from F.W. Woolworth Company visited Corning Glass Works, a large American glass manufacturer headquartered in New York. Corning had only experimented briefly with ornament manufacture before this meeting, but the two businessmen urged the company to begin full-scale production. It was a calculated choice—the company owned high-speed ribbon machine technology that could be converted to mass-produce ornament bulbs. Armed with this patented machinery and the promise of large orders from Eckardt and Woolworth, Corning agreed to enter the glass ornament business. Within a few months, Corning Glass Works was manufacturing more than half of the Christmas tree decorations sold in the United States.

Left: Corning’s machine-blown round ornaments were absolutely spherical and had a stout neck, which made them stronger and less fragile than the hand-blown variety. Right: In mere minutes, the Wellsboro, PA ribbon machine turned out as many ornaments as a full day of glassblowing. Here, a Corning worker searches for broken pieces in a fresh batch of cooled bulbs. Both images from “Popular Science,” January 1941, Benson Ford Research Center.

Wartime Ornament Decoration

Though Corning converted just one ribbon machine to manufacture ornament bulbs, production was staggering. In 1940, Corning produced 40,000,000 clear glass ornament bulbs at its Wellsboro, Pennsylvania plant. About 1/3 of these were decorated in-house. The remainder was sold to outside decorating companies.

The first domestically-produced ornaments mimicked European imports. The inside of each bulb received a coat of silver lacquer; the outside was tinted with colored dye. Then, after any desired hand decoration, the shiny baubles were topped with tight metal caps.

But in 1941, when the United States entered World War II, decorators were forced to rethink the American ornament. Popular lacquers became impossible to import, and most metals were diverted to the war effort. Despite material restrictions and wartime shortages, many innovative companies used available paints, sprays of tinsel, and even cardboard to decorate ornaments throughout the war.

Max Eckardt, who’d been instrumental in securing blank bulbs from Corning for his four New Jersey decorating plants before the war, produced some of the most popular domestic ornaments under the name Shiny Brite. Examples of Shiny Brite ornaments from The Henry Ford’s collection document the development of American ornaments through World War II.

1942-1945: This ornament was not silvered, as metallic lacquers were hard to come by early in the war, but resources still allowed for a thin metal cap, 2000.99.3 (THF155288)

1943-1945: When nearly all American metal was diverted to the war effort in 1942, Shiny Brite responded with folded cardboard hangers, 96.8.2 (THF155289).

1943-1945: Soon, the company replaced metal caps and hooks with a combination of cardboard, string, and glue, 2000.99.14 (THF155287).

1946-1955: Silver lacquer and metal caps reappeared after the war ended in 1945, 2003.120.5 (THF155294).

Popular Science images from “Birth of a Bauble,” pp. 110-115, Volume 138, Number 1. Find it at the Benson Ford Research Center.

Saige Jedele is a Curatorial Assistant at The Henry Ford.

Christmas, Christmas decorations, Christmas lights

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