In 1973, Hallmark Cards, Inc. decided to venture into the world of producing Christmas ornaments. That year, the company introduced a small line of “Keepsake Ornaments,” consisting of six rather traditional glass ball ornaments and 12 handcrafted yarn figures.
Since then, the company has kept its finger on the pulse of popular tastes, interests, and values. Whether you’re a devoted Hallmark ornament fan or you’re not quite sure why others are, you have to admit that this entrepreneurial company has revolutionized Christmas decorating.
“Spotlight on SNOOPY Series: Joe Cool” ornament, 1998. THF177009
The Henry Ford recently acquired a collection of thousands of Hallmark ornaments from Indiana Hallmark retailer, The Party Shop, spanning the years 1973 to 2009. Besides being fun, artistic, and just plain charming, there are several other reasons we are excited about the addition of these ornaments to our collection.
“Here Comes Santa Series: Santa’s Motorcar” ornament, 1979. THF176989
J. C. Hall, a Visionary Founder
Founded in 1910 by Joyce Clyde (J. C.) Hall, Hallmark did not start with ornaments, but with cards. J. C. Hall (born 8/29/1891) grew up in small-town David City and Norfolk, Nebraska, where at a young age he sold perfume to neighbors and clerked in his older brothers’ bookstore. When he was 16, the three brothers pooled their money and opened the Norfolk Post Card Company. But the market for postcards in Norfolk was limited.
As story has it, in 1910, J. C. dropped out of high school, crammed two shoeboxes full of postcards, and boarded a train for Kansas City, Missouri. He called on drugstores, bookstores, and gift shop owners, wholesaling products that were created and manufactured by others. As business picked up, he ventured to outlying railroad towns. He and his brother Rollie were soon able to open a specialty store in downtown Kansas City, selling postcards, gifts, books, and stationery. Unfortunately, their inventory was wiped out by a fire in 1915. But they were able to float a loan and bought an engraving firm, which set the stage for the creation of their first original Hallmark card designs. In 1921, brother William joined them and in 1923 the three brothers formed Hall Brothers.
Building a Brand
To establish Hallmark as a recognizable brand, it was J.C. Hall’s idea to begin placing ads in women’s magazines. In 1928, J. C. Hall came up with the brand name “Hallmark” because it both incorporated the family name and was an allusion to goldsmiths’ “hallmark,” a mark of quality. The company began to sell its greeting cards nationally. In 1944, Hallmark’s sales and marketing executive Ed Goodman came up with the tag line, “When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best” (using three important company values: caring, quality, and “the best”). In 1954, the company changed its name to Hallmark Cards, Inc.
Traditional glass ball ornament, “Charmers,” 1974. THF177044
J. C. Hall stepped down as president in 1966, and his son Donald J. Hall became the new president and CEO. Under Donald, Hallmark grew and expanded its quality products to a global market. Ornaments were introduced in 1973. The Hallmark Gold Crown Store program was formalized in 1986, with a network of independently owned and operated retailers to build on the strength of the Hallmark brand and its products. The company acquired complementary companies during the 1980s and 1990s, beginning with Crayola in 1984.
Since its beginnings, Hallmark has been known for taking risks and being innovative. In 1917, Hallmark “invented” modern gift wrap by printing its own wrapping paper. The company also patented the “Eye-Vision” greeting card display racks, beginning the idea of displaying greeting cards on public view rather than hiding them in drawers.
Hallmark has continually embraced innovation in the design, technology, and marketing of its ornaments. These include: the use of artists to create original designs; unique translations of cultural celebrities, phenomena, and design trends; groundbreaking experiments in applying sound, light, and other special effects; and sparking the phenomenon of ornament collecting through the creation of a collectors’ club and development of several-year-long ornament series.
“Baby’s First Christmas” ornament, 1990. THF177027
A Mission-Driven Company
Hallmark Cards, Inc. has built an extremely successful business around the core mission of reinforcing stability and connectedness within a rapidly changing world. The company believes that their products and services must enrich people’s lives; that creativity and quality—in their products, services and all that they do—are essential to their success; and that innovation in all areas of their business is essential to attaining and sustaining leadership.
“See ‘n Say” ornament, 2007 (mechanical). THF177011
There is a reason why the most popular ornaments over time have moved from traditional glass balls to “figural ornaments”—that is, ornaments designed to represent something, from Christmas motifs to popular toys to characters in movies, TV shows, and children’s books. Many consumers tell Hallmark that they view the company’s Keepsake Ornaments as more than just holiday decorations. They help them relive special memories, remember special people and events, and express their own unique interests and personalities.
One of the company’s greatest innovations was establishing an international chain of independent Hallmark stores to encourage sales, customer loyalty, and reinforce their brand. The Henry Ford’s collection of ornaments was once displayed at one of these stores—The Party Shop, a 12,000 square foot Hallmark store in Warsaw, Indiana. The family who owned and operated the Party Shop and the Hallmark Ornament Museum displayed within it epitomizes an entrepreneurial family who embraced Hallmark’s mission.
Dorothy Snyder and her son David in front of the Hallmark Ornament Museum inside their Hallmark Store
Norman and Dorothy Snyder bought The Party Shop in Warsaw, Indiana in 1978. They were looking for a career change and thought that owning a Hallmark store would both be enjoyable and align with their own values. During the 1980s, the Snyders bought or added several stores, both locally and in surrounding small communities. They and their two children, David and Dana, managed these stores.
In 1989, the family moved The Party Shop from downtown Warsaw out to a 4,400 square foot store in a shopping center on the outskirts of town. They kept outgrowing their space until, in 1996, they moved into their final location—a 12,000 square foot store in that shopping center, about three times the size of most Hallmark stores! It was then that they opened the Hallmark Ornament Museum, aided by the donation of an earlier collection amassed by a friend of their son David. They stopped adding to the collection in 2009, because they just couldn’t justify adding more cases—the space was needed for the retail operation.
A visionary founder; a successful brand; risk-taking and innovation; a mission-driven company; customer focus; and connections with an entrepreneurial family—these are the qualities that mark our new Hallmark ornament collection. So, they may be cute; they may be funny; they may seem overly sentimental at times. They also make a perfect acquisition for The Henry Ford.
Watch for a growing number of these ornaments to appear in Digital Collections on our website and be sure to check them out in person at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation during the holiday season.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator & Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. She was aided in this blog post by Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life and fellow collaborator on “all things Hallmark.”
Nostalgia for those who experienced it—and a hip mid-century modern revival for others.
The Visits with Santa experience in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation this year is a throwback to the 1960s. Kids can tell Santa their wishes as they sit next to him under a colorful kiosk made by Ray and Charles Eames for the IBM pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Nearby is a cozy 1960s living room vignette—complete with a La-Z-Boy chair, television set, and an aluminum Christmas tree from the era.
This mid-century modern theme coincides with the opening of our newest permanent exhibit in the museum, Mathematica, alsodesigned by Ray and Charles. Several components of Mathematica were featured inside that IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, so we were excited to bring those two experiences together for this year’s holiday programming.
The scene provides a bit of nostalgia for those who experienced the 1960s—and a hip mid-century modern revival for others. Let’s look at some blasts from the 1960s Christmas past.
Aluminum trees brought a modern look to a mid-1960s Christmas. THF170112
The early 1960s brought a fresh, new look to Christmas tree aesthetics. A completely modern look--the aluminum Christmas tree. It made a shiny, metallic splash in living rooms all over America. More than a million trees were sold during the decade. A tree choice that eschewed the traditional pine- or fir-scented Christmas experience when it landed on the Christmas scene in the 1960s, now conjures up images of a retro Christmas past.
Color wheel sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company, 1960-1965. THF8379
A color wheel lit up the aluminum tree, with the tree changing from blue to red to green to gold as the wheel revolved. The color wheel was there for a practical reason—you couldn’t put strings of lights on aluminum trees because of fire safety concerns. But to those viewing the transformation, the color wheel seemed a no-brainer way to light these trees—so modern and so magical. It was mesmerizing to watch—whether from a front row seat in your living room or the view through your neighbor’s window.
The Smith family of Redford, Michigan purchased these ornaments in 1964 to hang on their aluminum Christmas tree. THF309083
Aluminum trees called for minimalist look. The trees were often sparingly decked with ornaments all of one color.
The Wojewidka siblings pose for a Christmas photo in front of their live tree in 1960. THF125145
Yet, “real” trees remained popular as well—fresh-cut trees chosen from one of the many temporary Christmas tree lots that popped up in cities and towns. (The cut-your-own trend was not yet widespread.) Scotch pines were favored by many—though there were diehard balsam fans as well. These trees were bedecked with a varied array of ornaments—glass ones by the Shiny Brite company were popular. And shiny “icicles”—made of lead before it was prohibited—hung from the branches to add to the sparkle.
Holiday Greetings in the Mail
By the early 1960s, Christmas cards offered a greater variety of seasonal images beyond those traditionally found. This image shows a woman clothed in a pine tree decorated with 1960s trendy-colored ornaments. THF287028
By mid-December, mailboxes were filling with Christmas cards, sent by family and friends to let the recipient know that they were being specially thought of during the holiday season. It was exciting to pull out handfuls of cards from the mailbox—it may have been the only time during the year when a kid had much interest in what the postman delivered. And not necessarily because of the cards themselves—the cards were a tangible sign that Christmas was indeed on its way and that Santa would soon be making his deliveries!
Christmas card display clothesline and pins, about 1964. THF155082
Where did people display all these Christmas cards? On a mantle, a table, or the top of the television. Or taped to a wall or a large mirror in the living room. Hanging them from a Christmas-themed clothesline was a more novel way to display them.
This 1962 stamp carried traditional Christmas images of lighted candles and a wreath. THF287036
In 1962, the United States Postal Service issued the first Christmas-themed postage stamps in America. (A few other countries had already beaten us to the punch on issuing Christmas-themed postage stamps.) But once begun, Christmas stamps graced more and more Christmas card envelopes to complete the annual presentation of holiday-themed greetings sent through the mail.
Making a List
Christmas catalogs like this 1964 Sears, Roebuck & Company got a workout in December. THF135874
Kids were busy deciding what to ask Santa for. Instead of perusing the web, kids looked forward to the arrival of Christmas season catalogs sent by stores like Sears, Roebuck and Company, J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward. Kids (and adults) eagerly leafed through the pages of the toys, clothing, and other gifts offered within, making their wish list for Santa’s perusal before passing the catalog along to another family member.
Television offered additional gift ideas, playing out the merits of products before viewers’ eyes in commercials that one couldn’t speed past with a DVR.
Toys for Girls and Boys Many 1960s toys that appeared on the Christmas lists of millions of kids during the 1960s—some in updated versions—are still classics.
Silly Putty modeling compound, about 1962. THF135811
Silly Putty was invented during World War II as General Electric researchers worked to develop a synthetic substitute for rubber. While no practical purpose could be found for the stuff, it did turn out to be a great toy. Silly Putty bounced higher and stretched farther than rubber. It even lifted images off the pages of color comics. (My sister took Silly Putty to bed with her, leaving a perfect egg-shaped stain on the sheets that never came out.)
Eight-year-old Rachel Marone of New York received this Etch A Sketch as s Christmas gift in 1961. THF93827
The 1960s saw an innovative new arts and crafts toy—the Etch A Sketch. Turning the knobs at the bottom of the screen (one to create horizontal lines, one for vertical) let the user “draw” on the screen with a mixture of aluminum powder and plastic beads. To erase, you just turned the screen over and shook it. Incidentally, it was the first toy that Ohio Art, its manufacturer, ever advertised on television. (Accomplished users could make great drawings on the Etch A Sketch—and some of us were just happy to produce decent-looking curved lines.)
This 1962 Play-Doh Fun Factory was a childhood toy of Mary Sherman of Minnesota. THF170363
Play-Doh introduced their Fun Factory in 1960. Now kids could go beyond free-form modeling with their red, yellow, blue and white Play-Doh. The Play-Doh Fun Factory provided instructions on how to create things like trains, planes, and boats—and an extruder with dies to easily make the components.
Watching Christmas Specials on TV
Album from A Charlie Brown Christmas television special, about 1965. THF162745
Kids eagerly listened for announcements on television or leafed excitedly through TV Guide magazine to find out when the holiday specials would air. You didn’t want to miss them—it was your only shot at watching! There were no DVRs or DVDs back then. Two animated classics from the mid-1960s--A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas--are among the earliest and most enduring of the Christmas specials developed for television.
Within their engaging storylines, these two shows carried a message about the growing commercialization of the holiday. As kids watched the barrage of toy ads that appeared with regularity on their television screens and leafed through catalogs to make their Christmas lists, seeing these cartoons reminded them that Christmas was also about higher ideals—not just about getting presents. These television shows—and the increasing number and variety of Christmas specials that have since joined them—remain a yearly reminder to temper one’s holiday-related commercialism and to think of the needs of others.
Not only have Charlie Brown and the Grinch become perennial favorites enjoyed by children and adults alike, but the soundtracks of these shows have joined the pantheon of musical Christmas classics.
The Ronettes’ version of Sleigh Ride, with its freshly melodic “Ring-a-ling-a-ling Ding-dong ding” background vocals on this 1963 Phil Spector-produced album, has become an iconic Christmas classic. THF135943
What would a 1960s Christmastime be without Christmas-themed music heard on the stereo at home and over speakers in stores? The 1960s saw a flood of Christmas albums and singles. Various singers—like Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Brenda Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the Beach Boys—recorded their versions of old favorites and new tunes.
The Annual Christmas Photo
In 1963, the Truby brothers of Royal Oak, Michigan, posed in Santa pajamas given to them by their grandmother. THF287005
After the presents were opened and everyone was dressed in their Christmas finery, it was time to round up the kids for photos. Siblings (and, sometimes, their parents) might be posed together in front of a seasonal backdrop like the Christmas tree or a fireplace. Some families filmed home movies of their celebrations. These home movies often captured only strategic snippets of the Christmas celebration—movie film was expensive. And these home movies were without sound—which was probably sometimes a good thing!
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
Santa Claus is a fan of The Henry Ford. Every year, he visits Henry Ford Museum and spends time with guests of all ages. This year, you’ll find him at the North Pole—in the Heroes of the Sky exhibit, right next to the Fokker Tri-Motor flown over the pole by Richard Byrd. Behind Santa is an enticing display of toys—but what you might not know about these is that all of them are artifacts in our collections, including this “Designed by You” Faber-Castell Fashion Studio set.
To learn more about the other toys in Santa’s Arctic Landing, or to put together a last-minute Christmas list for yourself, visit our Digital Collections to see more toys on display throughout Henry Ford Museum. Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford
It was eye-catching, lightweight, and easy to care for. There was none of the fuss and muss of a real tree because the needles were attached. You could store it compactly in a box and reuse it year after year. It was completely safe unless you foolishly strung it with electric lights—potentially causing a fire hazard.
No, to make your aluminum Christmas tree shine with a dazzling brilliance, you didn’t use strings of electric lights. You turned a four-color, revolving color wheel onto it. And maybe added a few shiny blue or red balls to heighten the silvery aluminum effect. Any way you looked at it, the aluminum Christmas tree was a perfect symbol of the modern Jet-Age lifestyle people were dreaming about in the early 1960s.
Dressing Goodfellows dolls has been a Christmas tradition in Detroit since 1924, and the Ford Motor Company Girls’ Club was a major participant in dressing Goodfellows dolls for underprivileged children in Detroit for many years. Starting in 1946 by dressing 65 dolls, the club’s peak donation was 3,000 dresses in 1967, 1969, and 1970, and they averaged between 1,500 to 3,000 dolls most years.
The Ford Girls’ Club was started in 1946 under the Recreation Section of Ford Motor Company. Every female employee – salaried, or hourly – was automatically a member (though active membership did cost $1.00 per year). Any immediate female family member of a club member could join, as could the wives of Ford male employees. The club was primarily social, meeting once a month in addition to dinners, picnics, dances, lectures, and workshops. Members were also service oriented - they held dances for returning veterans, gave gifts and visited veterans in hospitals, and each Christmas they participated in clothing dolls for the Goodfellows to distribute, making thousands and thousands of handmade dresses over the years.
Dolls were usually handed out at the annual November service meeting. The club’s first foray into dress making was in 1946, when women of the club made 65 handmade dresses for dolls. The next year they jumped up to 290, with the dresses being displayed in the Administration Building cafeteria before being sent to the Goodfellows. As more women joined the club, interest grew in this Christmas service project and the club dressed more and more dolls each year, with their finished projects being displayed in various Ford Motor Company buildings’ lobbies, and offices, as well as the Dearborn Virginia Dare storefront window in 1949. The number of dresses made continued to climb each year reaching to almost one thousand in 1954, and the dolls were displayed for the first time at the Rotunda Christmas Fantasy. The next few years were dress-making bonanzas, and in 1957 2,500 dolls were dressed and displayed at the Rotunda for visitors to view before they were distributed to girls in the Detroit area on Christmas Eve. The Girl’s Club maintained a high production rate in the years to come - between 1,750 and 2,000 dresses were made annually and displayed at the Rotunda or Ford Motor Company buildings. In 1966 production saw another jump when the club made almost 3,000, a number they reached the next year and continued to reach or come close to for the next four years.
The handmade dresses were made of all kinds of fabric, from cotton to organdy, satin and lace. Women also knit and crocheted dresses, from wool to angora. Dolls dressed as nurses, astronauts, drum majorettes, hula dancers, Girl Scouts, flying nuns, ballerinas, and ice skaters complete with skates, graced the displays, as did brides, baby dolls, and all kinds of different ethnic dresses. Women could make any type of dress they wanted, but prizes were given by the Goodfellows, and later Ford, in specific categories:
Knit and crocheted
Goodfellows prizes ranged from $1 for a dress placing in a particular division to a grand prize of $10. Ford soon began judging the Girls’ Club’s work and awarding prizes as well, with the dresses usually judged by the wives of the Goodfellows’ president and executive officers. Early on prizes were cash, but when the displays headed to the Rotunda the stakes were raised. Grand prize in the 1950s and early 1960s was a sewing machine and console, second prize being a portable sewing machine, and third prize was a sewing cabinet.
The prizes, of course, were always of secondary importance in the Girls’ Club work with the Goodfellows' goal of “no child without a Christmas.” Over a 27-year period, 1946-1972, the Ford Girls’ Club donated over 45,000 hand-made dresses to the Detroit Goodfellows' organization to distribute to area children. The Ford employee newsletter The Rouge News and later Ford World carried stories and photos of the club’s donations every year, urging members of the club and others in the Ford organization to participate. We lose track of the Ford Girls’ Club here in the archive at about 1973, when Ford World ceased publishing stories on the yearly donation of dolls. However, judging from the 1972 output of 2,000 dolls, it seems likely the club continued the annual service drive for some years after.
The Goodfellows still distribute dolls and people in the metro Detroit area continue to provide dresses each year.
Kathy Makas is Reference Archivist at The Henry Ford.
It would not be a proper Christmas season without at least one viewing of the TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Every year, we can enjoy the antics of Lucy, Schroeder, and the rest of the “Peanuts” gang as they get ready (or not) for the Christmas play; sympathize with Charlie Brown as he passes up all those bright shiny aluminum trees and picks the sorriest tree on the Christmas tree lot; and cheer when the gang transforms Charlie Brown’s sad little tree into one of beauty and elegance at the end. Today, we can watch the special any time we want. But, back when it first aired on TV in 1965, we could only watch it once—Thursday, December 9, at 7:30 p.m., on CBS. And it was a revelation!
Not long ago, Chief Archivist Terry Hoover popped his head into my office. This isn’t unusual, as Terry and I sit next to each other, but in this case, he had something special to share. He’d discovered a couple of late 19th century children’s books relating to Christmas in our rare books collection, and wondered if we could digitize them. This week, just in time for Christmas, we have. A Visit from Santa Claus retells the famous Clement Moore poem beginning “’Twas the night before Christmas,” with each page of text accompanied by a lovely full-color illustration by Virginia Gerson. Or, check out Santa Claus's New Castle, written by Maude Florence Bellar and illustrated by Dixie Selden. View all pages of both books on our collections website, or check out all of our digital collections related to Christmas.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
October may seem a bit soon to be thinking about Christmas, but if you’ve ever visited Holiday Nights, you know The Henry Ford starts thinking about the holiday season early. Curator of Photographs and Prints Cynthia Miller got into the spirit earlier this fall by selecting some of our Thomas Nast material for digitization. Thomas Nast (1840–1902) was an editorial cartoonist who is well known for his work for Harper’s Weekly and for creating the modern image of Santa Claus. We’ve just digitized Cynthia’s selections, including this etching of Santa visiting a Union camp during the Civil War. Visit our collections website to view all our digitized Thomas Nast material, including additional Christmas images along with some depicting Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, and no holiday at all.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Making Christmas ornaments in Henry Ford Museum, Christmas Eve 1986.
Earlier this month I was sent this blog post from Target showcasing some of their holiday ads from the past 60 years. From Christmas tree-filled print ads to YouTube-ready TV commercials, the post was a hit with many of my co-workers here at The Henry Ford.
The post got me thinking to some of my favorite holiday memories of THF. Growing up in southeastern Michigan, my parents were (and still are) proud members of Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. One of our Christmas traditions every year was to visit the museum on Christmas Eve. We looked forwarded to making ornaments, adding our names to the huge visitor paper chain and, of course, taking our family picture by the Christmas tree.
As I thought about my favorite memories here, I wondered what kind of holiday programming memorabilia we had in our collections? Turns out, there's quite a bit!
Take a look at just a few samples of holiday programming from over the years at The Henry Ford.
Visitors to Greenfield Museum in 1964 were treated to "period decorations" for the first time. What could guests expect as they toured the Village? From this 1964 pamphlet:
Appropriate Christmas decorations, authenticated in each instance by careful research, have been installed in the 17th-century Cotswold Cottage, the 18th-century Secretary House, and the 19th-century Noah Webster House, Wright Homestead, and Ford Homestead, as well as in the Clinton Inn and the Martha-Mary Chapel. These buildings will be highlights of the regular guided tours during the holidays.
In the mood to learn more about crafting? Henry Ford Museum was the place for you during Christmas 1976! During the holiday season guests could learn about toymaking, counted thread embroidery, lace making, crewel embroidery, Christmas card painting, quilting, tinsmithing, broom making, candle making, glass blowing, weaving, doll making, cookie baking, basket making AND tole painting. Phew!
Need to know more about what was going on in the museum that year? Dial the Village Party Line!
In the 1980s, visitors enjoyed "Yuletide Evenings" in Greenfield Village, complete with sleigh ride tours and dinner inside Eagle Tavern.
While you might not think of a safari when you first think of the museum, children were definitely on the lookout with Santa in 1986 thanks to this holiday scavenger hunt. Chances are pretty good that I was one of those kids!
In the 1990s, the holidays were all about being a "unique event" in the museum and Village.
Lights have been a part of the Christmas tree tradition since at least the seventeenth century, when German families decorated evergreen boughs with wicks burning in tallow, oil, or more expensive wax. By the 1800s, candles had become commonplace in German and American homes, and people devised clever ways to affix them to Christmas trees.
Some selected long, thin rope candles that could be wrapped around Christmas tree branches. Others used wire to secure thicker candles, “glued” them to the tree with melted wax, or stuck them to branches using tacks or stick pins. The first commercially manufactured Christmas tree candleholders employed the stick pin method but offered additional support—turned-up metal tabs that held the candle.
Into the nineteenth century, innovators sought a remedy for dripping wax—a perennial holiday annoyance. A home lighting technology, the bobeche, or wax-catching dish, was patented for Christmas trees in 1867. Christmas tree candleholders soon featured crimped tin bobeches and wire or sharp tacks that united candle, wax-catcher, and tree branch.
As one might imagine, the clunky combination of tall candle, flimsy tin, and drooping branch—secured only by a bit of wire or small tack—lacked stability. Candles that leaned, even slightly, dripped wax onto ornaments or the floor. They were also potential fire hazards.
On Christmas Eve 1867, New Jersey inventor Charles Kirchhof received a patent for his counterweight candleholder—a solution to the tilting candle problem. Kirchhof designed a candleholder that hooked simply over a Christmas tree branch. Beneath it, a weight suspended from a wire ensured that the candle stayed upright. The effective, attractive design was a hit.
Counterweighted candleholders were popular in the late nineteenth century because they worked—and because their dangling weights added a pop of color or sparkle to the Christmas tree. Counterweights ranged from simple clay balls painted with solid or glittery lacquer to lead or tin shaped as pine cones, acorns, icicles, stars, birds, cherubs, or even Santa Claus.
Left: Candleholder featuring a brightly-painted clay counterweight, 36.637.9 (THF155315)
Right: This star-shaped counterweight is made of heavy lead, 188.8.131.52 (THF155314)
But the weight that made Kirchhof’s design so effective and so popular was also its biggest flaw. Counterweighted candleholders were heavy. They couldn’t be hung from small or dry boughs and caused even healthy branches to droop, sometimes sending a lighted candle tumbling into the tree or onto the floor.
In New York, inventor Frederick Arzt worked to improve the Christmas tree candleholder. In 1879, he introduced the spring clip candleholder. Light, reliable, and available in a variety of eye-catching designs and colors, the Christmas candle clip would remain prevalent into the 1920s.
These are Christmas Lights?
Candles weren’t the only nineteenth-century lighting source, even for the Christmas tree. Manufacturers applied other existing technologies, producing Christmas tree lanterns made of tin or thin glass. One inventor even patented a miniature Christmas tree oil lamp. A very early and popular American alternative to candleholders were glass “Christmas lights,” manufactured to be hung with wire from Christmas tree branches. Beautiful patterns in the clear or colored glass reflected light from inside, where a wick burned in cork or wood floating atop oil or water.
The Edison Electric Company released the technology that made electric Christmas lights a possibility in 1879, but American and German companies produced Christmas tree candleholders into the 1920s. Candle clips remained common, although they became less colorful and much simpler in form. Manufacturers continued to experiment, using soft wire and strips of tin in search of ever-safer designs.
Eventually, as electrification reached more American households and people gained trust in the new technology, electric Christmas tree lights caught consumers’ attention. Manufacturers wisely advertised the advantages of electric Christmas lights over candles: strands of electric lights (called “festoons”) could be turned on or off all at once—even better, they could stay lit for any desired amount of time with minimal attention. By the 1930s, Americans had made the switch from Christmas tree candles to electric Christmas lights—but the spirit of innovation that drove the development of Christmas tree candleholders lives on.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.