Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments: Curator Q&A
We are quickly drawing closer to the November 20 opening of our newest permanent exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation: Miniature Moments: A Journey Through Hallmark® Keepsake Ornaments. With just a few weeks to go, we checked in with Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life, and Donna R. Braden, Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life, to collect their thoughts on our collection of nearly 7,000 Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments. Check out their answers below.
What is the oldest Hallmark Keepsake Ornament in The Henry Ford’s collection?
One of Hallmark’s first ornaments from 1973, designed by artist Betsey Clark. / THF178137
Jeanine Head Miller (JHM): The ornaments in this collection date back to the first year that Hallmark produced Christmas ornaments—1973. That year, the company offered six decorated ball ornaments and twelve yarn ornaments. While the shape of Hallmark’s ball ornaments was traditional, the artwork, printed on a plastic sleeve and then heat-shrunk to the ornament, was an innovation. Hallmark’s simple yarn figures evoked nostalgic visions of Christmases long ago—the years leading up to America’s American Revolution Bicentennial celebration saw an increased interest in “early American” traditions.
Hallmark’s 1973 yarn ornament series included this colorful toy soldier. / THF177677
What is the newest Hallmark Keepsake Ornament in The Henry Ford’s collection?
JHM: The newest ornaments are the 269 made in 2009. (Yes—the number of ornaments released by Hallmark each year has grown!) These later ornaments reflect the increasing complexity of Hallmark’s designs. The vast majority of the company’s ornaments by this time were figurals (shapes that represent objects), with many being highly detailed. Ornaments sporting traditional Christmas themes were joined by an ever-evolving array of popular culture and technology-themed decorations. Customers appreciated the way that Hallmark’s designs helped them “personalize” their tree—a growing trend in Christmas tree decorating—using ornaments that reflected their own interests and experiences.
Hallmark’s 2009 "Ralphie's Pink Nightmare" ornament from the movie A Christmas Story depicts an unhappy Ralphie dressed in Aunt Clara’s pink bunny suit gift. / THF177263
Hallmark’s 2009 "Wired for Fun" teenage reindeer multitasks as he entertains himself with up-to-date digital technology—an MP3 player and a wireless video game. / THF358063
For the passionate culinary wizard, Hallmark’s 2009 "Snow Much Fun to Cook" ornament. / THF357697
What is the most common Hallmark Keepsake Ornament in The Henry Ford’s collection?
Donna R. Braden (DRB): This is a bit of a difficult question to answer. There is no easily available information on ornaments that were either produced or purchased in the greatest quantities, or those that are the easiest to find today. However, we might assume that those might align with the categories of ornaments that tend to be produced in the greatest number and variety. This varies over the years, but today—according to the 2022 Dream Book (and probably characteristic of the more recent years of our collection)—they are ornaments with classic Christmas themes, series favorites, Disney ornaments, meaningful moments and milestones, and popular culture characters, including Star Wars, Star Trek, superheroes, Harry Potter, toys, Peanuts, and Barbie.
What is the rarest Hallmark Keepsake Ornament in The Henry Ford’s collection?
DRB: Again, this is difficult to pin down. Lots of eBay listings for Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments say “extremely rare,” but these don’t necessarily cost a lot of money. Rarity can be based on the look, the artist, the date, the number in the series (especially firsts), and the popularity of the topic. Five rare ornaments I’ve seen listed follow below. The 1973 Betsey Clark ornament Jeanie notes as one of the earliest in our collection also seems to be rare.
"Mary's Angels Series: Buttercup,” 1988, is the first in its series. / THF182250
“Santa's Motorcar,” 1979, is the first in the Here Comes Santa series. / THF176990
"Tin Locomotive,” from 1982, is also rare. / THF177179
Another rare listing is “Miss Piggy” from 1983. / THF177327
"Starship Enterprise" is rare, even though it’s less than 40 years old. / THF177369
What is the largest Hallmark Keepsake Ornament in The Henry Ford’s collection?
JHM: Over the years, many Hallmark ornaments have grown in size—some five inches high or more—and complexity, adding narrative embellishment through visual detail, light, motion, and sound effects. Some—designed to be displayed on a flat surface—are more like figurines.
This large 2006 “Letters to Santa” ornament—about 5 ½ inches high and made to be hung on the tree—not only brims with charming detail, it offers motion and sound features. Pulling the bell below this battery-powered ornament causes several toys around Santa’s desk spring to life, as eight humorous recordings of children reading their letters to Santa are heard. / THF362217
This 1994 “Beatles Gift Set,” four inches high, commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Beatles’ 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show—one of the first times Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments had attempted likenesses of real people. / THF352350
The 2002 scene “The Family Room”—five inches high—was a group effort, with details of this homey design contributed by 19 Hallmark artists. / THF362466
What is the most valuable Hallmark Keepsake Ornament in The Henry Ford’s collection?
DRB: This is difficult to pin down, as it varies by changing collectability over the years—and The Henry Ford doesn’t collect based on monetary value, but instead on historical significance. However, the one ornament that shows up over and over is a 2009 ornament representing Cousin Eddie’s RV from the movie National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.
Hallmark "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation: Cousin Eddie's RV" Christmas Ornament, 2009. / THF361864
What is your favorite Hallmark Keepsake Ornament in The Henry Ford’s collection?
JHM: Hmmm… while I admit being partial to Hallmark’s small buildings, my favorite ornament—if I had to choose just one—is "Christmas Cookies!" from 2004. Why do I love it? This tiny stove with its charming cooking-making details immediately immerses me into happy childhood memories of baking Christmas cookies with my mother and sisters. A few years ago, my husband located one of these nearly 20-year-old ornaments online and gave it to me as a Christmas gift.
Hallmark’s "Christmas Cookies!" ornament, 2004. The lights inside the oven glow, and a fragrance insert emits the sweet scent of cookies “baking.” / THF177744
DRB: “Baby’s First Christmas,” from 1990, is my favorite ornament for personal reasons. My daughter Caroline was born that year. We were not big Hallmark ornament purchasers yet (that mushroomed later), but we saw this and it really “spoke” to us as a perfect symbol of this important milestone in our lives. We imagined being able to relive the memories of that milestone every year. And we do! More than 30 years later, it still occupies a prominent place on our Christmas tree every year.
Baby’s First Christmas, 1990. / THF177026
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford, Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford, and Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
2000s, 21st century, 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, 20th century, popular culture, Miniature Moments, home life, holidays, Henry Ford Museum, Hallmark, Christmas, by Jeanine Head Miller, by Ellice Engdahl, by Donna R. Braden