Wednesday, December 16, 2015

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The Story Behind Vintage "Shiny Brite" Christmas Ornaments

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My first Shiny Brite ornaments.
If you frequent antique or vintage shops, you’ve undoubtedly seen Shiny Brite ornaments, even if you have no idea of their name. They’re the colorful, often intricately painted glass ornaments, ranging from classic red to hot pink to candy-striped. They’re usually a bit expensive for someone (ahem, me) who’s used to thrift-store prices—maybe $20 to $30 a box—but I recently found a set of 12 in their original cardboard box for $4.50 at a charity shop. 

I’ve always admired them, but now my curiosity is officially piqued: What’s the history behind these adorable little ornaments?

The Shiny Brite story begins after World War I with Max Eckardt, a German born in 1890.

Though Eckardt was from Oberlind, Germany—just 20 miles away from Lauscha, a hub for glass ornament makers—he first trained in the toy industry. In 1926, though, he officially entered the ornament business with his brother, Ersnt, opening a factory in Oberlind, where his relatives and employees hand-decorated the glass balls. His company also had an office in New York City at 1107 Broadway, which later became part of the International Toy Center. Max emigrated to NYC in the late 1920s. 

With another war on the horizon, Eckardt feared the United States’ supply of German glass ornaments would be compromised, compelling him to found, in 1937, the Shiny Brite Company. The inspiration for the name is obvious: The insides of the ornaments were coated with silver nitrate so they would stay shiny, season after season.

To keep his company afloat, Eckardt sought the help of New York’s Corning Glass Company in 1937—with the promise that Woolworth’s would place a large order if Corning could modify its glass ribbon machine, which made light bulbs, to produce ornaments. The machine switchover was a success—molten glass was shaped into balls with the help of compressed air—and Woolworth’s ordered more than 235,000 ornaments; in December 1939, the first machine-made batch was shipped to Woolworth’s Five-and-Ten-Cent Stores, where they sold for two to ten cents apiece.

My favorite Shiny Brite style.
Eckardt’s fear proved prescient: Hitler’s rise to power, along with the British blockade, stopped the import of European ornaments to the U.S. in 1939.

By 1940, Corning was producing about 300,000 unadorned ornaments per day, sending the clear glass balls to outside artists, including those at Max Eckardt’s factory in New Jersey, for decoration. The ornaments were lined with silver nitrate, then run through a lacquer bath, decorated by Eckardt’s employees, and finally, packaged in brown cardboard boxes. At first, they were strictly silver, but eventually, Eckardt produced red, green, gold, pink, and blue ornaments. Corning also began offering a variety of shapes, including tops, bells, icicles, teardrops, trees, lanterns, and pinecones. 

The showroom address, 45 East 17th Street, NYC, is now a Sephora.
During World War II, however, the lacquer paint and silver lining became scarce, forcing Eckardt to make clear ornaments with thin, pastel stripes, which didn’t require as much pigment. The metal caps and hooks were replaced with cardboard and yarn. Some ornaments came with a tiny sprig of tinsel inside, but eventually, even this small amount of metal was prohibited during the war. 


A Sears catalog ad from the 1950s for Shiny Brite ornaments.

After the war, the crimped metal caps returned, with the addition of the words “Shiny Brite Made in U.S.A.” on the top. As part of the rebuilding effort, the U.S. government shipped Eckardt and his son, Harold, off to West Germany, hoping to breathe new life into the German glass ornament industry. There, they set up a factory in Wallenfells, which they named Lanissa, after Max’s three granddaughters (“L” for Lynne, “an” for Anne, and “issa” for Allison, whose nickname was Lissa). 

Stateside, Corning continued to crank out Shiny Brite ornaments—by the 1950s, production reached a rate of 1,000 per minute. (Machines also now painted the ornaments.) The 1950s was the Shiny Brite heyday, with Eckardt operating four New Jersey factories to keep pace with the demand. In 1955, Thor, a Chicago washing machine manufacturer, purchased the company, which eventually produced about 75 percent of the ornaments sold worldwide. 

Source: Christmas Nostalgia
Eckardt died in late 1961, and shortly thereafter, Shiny Brite's light began to fade, possibly due to the popularization of plastic. In the late 1990s, designer Christopher Radko bought the Shiny Brite name, and in 2001, began selling reproductions of the originals. 

22 comments:

  1. They bring back such memories. Thanks for sharing this.

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  2. They bring back such good memories. Thank you for sharing these.

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  3. I have quite a few .. ! my mom left them to me, they were her dad's. even have the box shown in the picture..
    thank you for sharing the history !!

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  4. Excellent article, thanks for sharing.

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  5. I have several of these ornaments and always looking for more. I remember buying many of these when I was a young kid back in the late 50's and starting collecting when I saw more. My christmas tree is vintage to say the least. All ornaments are hand blown.

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  6. Great history/art lesson. My learnin' for the day! Thanks.

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  7. How does one tell the old from the newer ones???

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    1. The most telling part of the ornament is the cap: The newer ones are stamped with "Shiny Brite Made in the U.S.A." on the cap. If you find one with a cardboard cap, you know it was made during WWII.

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  8. Very interesting article, thank you! I do love these old glass ornaments. I might even have some of these. I will check my box tonight.

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  9. I recognize several from my childhood tree

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  10. Growing up, we had a lot of these kinds of ornaments on our Christmas tree year after year. My older sister managed to keep 2 or 3 of them. We also had bubble lights which were my favorite.

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  11. I have always loved the shiny brite ornaments I still have from my childhood. Many of mine are in original boxes! I tested up the first time I saw Radkos reproductions in Macy's several years ago because it stirred so many precious memories of my mom and her love for Christmas. I bought 4 large boxes, one for each of my adult children to have their own They are quite familiar with the history of our collection. Thanks to this article, I now can share the ornaments history!

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  12. Oh, how I love these! I remember staring at my Grandma's in amazement, as a little girl.

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  13. I have a whole set that was my Grandmother's, then my Mom's and now mine. My Mom always took such loving care of them, and several have the yarn and cardboard tops! I had no idea about the history of this company! Thank you for sharing!

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  14. This was very intersting. I have found my Shiney Brite at estate sales years ago. I can't wait to get them out every Christmas. Thank you so much for the history lesson.

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  15. My mom had many of these ornaments and left them to me and my 2 siblings. We treasure each one of them and proudly display them on our trees today. It was so good to read the history of these wonderful parts of my life.

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  16. I have all the ones my parents had since 1936 through 1959.

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  17. These go on our tree every year with loving care. I think we take more care with the boxes than the balls sometimes. Both are vintage treasures.

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  18. I scoop up a few every year at a giant estate sale here in Davis, CA. Love 'em

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  19. I, too, have many from my mom. I was little in the 1950's and i remember mom buying some at Woolworth's. Some are in the original boxes. The Radko reproductions are lovely but lack something. I found some old ones on Ebay.

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  20. I worked from 1965 to 1998 in the Corning Glass plant in Wellsboro, PA that made these ornaments. I was responsible for maintenance and manufacturing of the Corning Ribbon Machines in Wellsboro from 1978 to 1998. Visited Eckardt factories in US and Germany. Millions and millions of these ornaments were made in all sizes and shapes. It was an exciting time. The glass Plant in Wellsboro was closed as of the end of September 2016. The closing marks the end of 100 plus years of Corning Ribbon Machine glass making.

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