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.
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.
Collection management staff play a crucial role in The Henry Ford's digitization process. We not only find and pull objects from their storage locations and move them to the photo studio, we also unpack or assemble objects if needed, assist the photographer with setup, repack the objects, and return them to storage after being photographed. We also track the locations of objects in the collections database as they are moved from place to place.
This graphic of our digitization process shows where collection management fits in.
Most movements are pretty straightforward and involve only minimal handling, but some objects give us a greater challenge. Sometimes it is the sheer quantity of objects that creates a challenge in coordinating and streamlining the digitization process.
One example of this type of work is our recently acquired Hallmark ornament collection. Over 6,600 ornaments were acquired, and we initially set out to digitize them all, with photography completed by the end of 2020. (Note that this goal has since been disrupted, like so many things, by the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.) With this many ornaments, it became clear that a plan was needed to maximize efficiency and that it was way too much work for the present staff to accomplish due to other job duties, so contract employees were hired to work solely on the project.
We streamlined the process as much as possible, but there were still quite a few steps.
Pallets of incoming unprocessed ornaments in our storage building.
After the ornaments are catalogued by our registrars, collection management staff move the ornaments from the processing area to the Photo Studio, making sure all items are securely packed so no damage occurs during the journey. Because our campus is so large, this involves moving the objects from one building to another.
Catalogued ornaments awaiting delivery to the Photo Studio.
Upon arrival in the studio, the ornament product packages are removed from the storage cartons and then the ornaments are unpacked from their product packages. Care is taken in opening the packages, and the items are carefully removed as to not tear the boxes, damage the ornament, or lose any small pieces. The ornaments are then sorted to keep similarly sized ones together, so the photo setup doesn’t need to be changed between each photograph. Glass or shiny ornaments usually require different lighting, so these are kept in their own batch as well.
The ornaments are readied ahead of the photo shoot to easily move through the process, allowing a large number per day to be shot. We don’t want to get slowed down by taking time in between each shot to unpack the next item.
Ornaments getting prepared to be photographed.
Ornaments with their packages and accession number tags ready for photography.
Ornaments lined up on a cart, ready to be photographed.
Photographing the ornaments.
Assisting with the photography setup is also part of the job: placing the ornaments on the table, removing them after they’re photographed, making sure all parts are included in the shot, and assisting the photographer as needed.
After the photographer is done, we wrap the ornament in clean new tissue paper and carefully place it back into its product package. The product packages are then placed in new, clean archival storage boxes, sorted by year. For permanent storage, the bubble wrap that was included in the original packaging is removed, as it does not contain a stable plastic and may break down and harm the objects.
Photographed ornaments being sorted before being boxed up for storage.
Since this a very large collection, it would take up a large amount of shelf space in storage. To save space, we stack the completed cartons on a pallet. When the pallet is full, it is then shrink wrapped to keep all the cartons in place during movement to their storage location.
Palletized Boxes shrink wrapped to keep everything in place.
Diagram of location of boxes to easily locate boxes (and the individual ornaments they contain) within the pallet in the future.
Barcoded boxes ready to be palletized.
At each step of the process, from cataloging to the final storage location, the location of each ornament is tracked in our collection management database [Axiell’s EMu]. We update the location field each time we move an artifact. With 6,600 ornaments in the collection, that’s a lot to keep track of—so we streamline this step as well.
A holder location is created in EMu and a barcode is generated for each storage box and pallet used. Each time we move a box to a pallet, we scan its barcode and the one on the pallet, and all ornaments in that box get their location updated automatically in our database. Then when we move the pallet, we scan its barcode and the barcode of its storage location, and all ornaments in all the boxes on the pallet get their locations updated. This saves a lot of time and is much more efficient then updating each object individually each time.
Due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, our digitization priorities have shifted—but we were still able to digitize more than 2,000 of the Hallmark ornaments before we had to stop. You can check out some curator highlights from the collection in our Expert Set, or browse them all in our Digital Collections.
The Henry Ford is facing unprecedented financial challenges due to the impact of our 16-week closure and reduced operations. We need your help in securing our future. Love the Henry Ford? Please support all that we treasure—including our digitization program. Longtime supporters of The Henry Ford will match your donation dollar for dollar, so your contribution will have double the impact.
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.”