I have to admit something to you all: I'm crazy about Christmas. I don't have a tree up all year or sing carols or anything, but as soon as Thanksgiving is over, IT'S ON! The Christmas albums come out, the lights get put up and our collection of ornaments get hung on the trees.*
My husband and I have family ornaments ranging from a few fragile German pieces from just after WWI to mid-century Shiny Brites to a piece of purple foil glued on cardstock marked 'MyLes' in pencil.** We also like finding eclectic antique and vintage ornaments in cotton or paper or glass. The problem is that while we've picked up a thing or two, we never had a comprehensive reference on how to identify or date ornaments. As 'crackers' as we are about the ornaments, there's a real limit to how much we'll spend on a piece of fragile glass or a disintegrating candy container. So we hunt for bargains that aren't going to be researched and labeled. That's where Robert Brenner and his books come in.
This Christmas we received three of his books on the history of ornaments. This one is his earliest and is a valuable reference tool, but it does suffer from some issues. The book is divided into sections based on the materials an ornament is made of - dough, cloth, metal, paper, wax, cotton, glass, composition and plastics - with some grey areas addressed. Oh, and lighting. The book is furnished with some excellent photos of early ornaments of most types discussed.
A big revelation was how many ornaments and styles kept on for decades after we thought they would have fallen out of fashion. We were aware of many modern reproductions, but certain styles of ornaments we thought were exclusively Victorian it turns out were made well up into the early 1930s - these include the large wire wrapped glass figurals and the abstract tinsel ornaments made built around tissue-thin glass spheres. "Feather trees", artificial trees made of wire and wrapped in dyed goose feathers, and the miniature ornaments to match, were also made right up until WWII. Brenner offers some advice on what to look for: a rule of thumb is that more elaborate construction and "true" lifelike colors in glass and paper indicate an earlier date. But there are exceptions. And, while there are hundreds of color images in the book, Brenner rarely, if ever, puts examples side by side. For example, if Japanese honeycomb tissue ornaments were 'less dense' then their German counterparts what does that mean exactly if there isn't a single picture of a German or a Japanese item?
The book is a great place to start, and there is a later edition of this book (still twenty years old...), but I'm hoping the others provide some more concrete examples and insight. I'm hoping to be a little more educated next time we come across promising ornaments.
*We had two. Maybe a third next year. Only one is real though! Does that make it better?
**I've always disliked arts and crafts, so I tended to phone it in even then.