As the temperatures move decidedly away from the triple digits, we start to think about the upcoming holiday season. Thanksgiving is just around the corner and then my favorite of all Christmas and New Year’s. Holiday ornaments of all kinds – those on the tree, in the yard, or along Main Street – have long held a special place in my holiday traditions as they have for many others. This year Las Vegas is going to be restarting one such holiday tradition: decorating light poles along our Main Street. In honor of this exciting new bit of holiday cheer, it seems a good time to look into the history of all of these holiday decorations.
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve loved Christmas. With five kids in the house, it was always a big deal. My mom would bake cookies, fudge, divinity and every other kind of holiday sweet imaginable. She kept them in Tupperware out on our screened-in porch, where – since we lived in northern Wisconsin – the cold was enough of a deterrent to getting at the sweets that they tended to last through New Years.
The holidays weren’t just about edibles, though. Our house was always filled with decorations, the crown jewel of which was, of course, the Christmas tree. Around the start of December, my parents would go and buy our Christmas tree. It would go in front of the living room bay window. Dad would put the lights on it and then we would decorate it. Being the youngest of five, I remember being trusted only with the few wooden ornaments and the candy canes. I would watch my mom carefully hand my older sisters one ornament at a time from her prized Shiny Brite collection. Each would delicately carry it to the tree and slowly hang it on a branch.
Once the tree was decorated with my mom’s Shiny Brites as well as garland, candy canes, and an angel on the top, mom would turn off all the lamps & lights, walk to the switch and turn on the tree’s lights. We would all oooh and ahh. It was always the most exciting time for me – well, except for Christmas morning.
About 10 years ago, my mom passed away and my sisters and I carefully divided up her Shiny Brite collection. Since then, I have added to my mom’s ornaments and now have maybe 30 or 40 of my own. I have often wondered about the history not only of glass decorations like Shiny Brites but also all of the other wonderful holiday decorations that have become part of many Americans’ traditions.
It seems that in looking across glass tree decorations, residential yard decorations, and commercial holiday decor, glass decorations are clearly the oldest tradition. From what I’ve read about glass holiday ornaments, they were first made in the mid-1800s in Lauscha, Germany. Lauscha was a community of glassblowers who observed that their fellow Germans were hanging fruits and variously shaped cookies on their Christmas trees. Building upon this tradition they introduced glass holiday ornaments that came in a variety of shapes, people, animals and foods.
In the 1880s, a gentleman by the name of F. W. Woolworth learned of the Lauscha ornaments and began importing them from Germany for sale in his five & dimes. Mr. Woolworth’s customers were so taken with these ornaments, it is rumored that by 1890 Woolworth’s was selling $25 million in glass holiday ornaments imported from Germany. World War I brought an end to the importing of goods from Germany. However, soon after the war ended the importing started anew. By the 1930s, though, another war seemed to be looming and had people worried about the future supply of holiday ornaments.
It was about this time, the late 1930s, that a New York businessman named Max Eckhardt, who had long been involved in importing the Lauscha ornaments, teamed up with a representative from F. W. Woolworth and together they persuaded the Corning Company to produce American-made glass ornaments. You see, Corning had this machine that made light bulbs from a ribbon of glass. It wasn’t such a far stretch to use that same machine to create glass baubles. By 1940, Corning’s machine was making over 300,000 ornaments a day or 2,000 a minute. A skilled German glassblower could produce maybe 600 ornaments in a day. Corning’s largest customer was Max Eckhardt and his all American company Shiny Brite.
Over the years, how ornaments were made shifted with availability of materials. For example, during World War II the silver that was used to give an ornament its color was needed for the war effort, so all Shiny Brites produced during this era were clear with hand-painted color on the outside of the ornament. Because there were so few of these made, they have become very valuable. Shiny Brites were made in various shapes including balls, bells, teardrops, icicles, and pine trees. Some of them had stripes, others were flocked with mica, and still others were stenciled with holiday scenes and sayings.
The life of the Shiny Brite company was not as long as one might think. By the early 1960s plastic ornaments were becoming more popular and in 1962 Shiny Brite closed its doors. In recent years, however, the popularity of Shiny Brite ornaments has experienced something of a resurgence. And in 2001 Christopher Radko, a well-established holiday ornament company, began reissuing Shiny Brites in all those shapes and sizes you remember, but in additional colors too.
The holidays, however, are not just about decorating the interior of our homes. Many people still decorate their home’s exterior, too. Lawn and house decorating for the holidays began in the post-World War II era. The first lawn decorations were depictions of Santa, reindeer, a manger scene, and the like that had been printed on vinyl. They were sold at hardware stores where they would be carefully cut out and mounted on wood backing. After propping them up in your front yard you would add floodlights to illuminate them at night. These ornaments are still made today and can be found online easily.
In the 1960s, as with the trend in interior holiday decorations, these vinyl decorations morphed into plastic flat sets that were sold by Sears beginning in 1963. There were similar scenes of Santa, reindeer and religious Nativities. These, too, were lit using either floodlights or something called “footlights.” Footlights attached to the bottom of the yard decor and had a plastic “cup” that directed the lights upward onto the decoration.
In addition to Sears, the Poloron Corporation out of New Rochelle, NY started selling yard decorations in the early 1960s. Having originally made thermoses and coolers, Poloron attempted to go beyond the flat yard decoration and make something in 3-D. Their first attempts were plastic rounded figures illuminated with floodlights. These came out in 1967. They were quickly improved upon and by just 1968 Poloron had inserted bulbs into the figures in order to light them from inside. These lit plastic decorations were a huge hit and soon the line diversified into various snowmen, a Santa’s boot, 4-foot carolers, Santa holding a gift and many more.
While the popularity of these decorations declined by the mid-1970s due to concerns over energy efficiency, today they are experiencing something of a revival. Advances in energy efficient holiday lighting – including LEDs – have made these figures once again popular.
I looked around quite a bit for information on commercial holiday decorations. But was disappointed that I couldn’t find much. I did learn that the first national Christmas tree was erected in 1923 by then President Coolidge and that San Diego put up the first municipal holiday decorations in 1904 when they strung up lights across their Main Street. New York City was the next city to adopt such holiday decorations, stringing their first municipal lights in 1912.
Like my mom’s Shiny Brite collection, I loved the holiday decorations that went up on the light poles in my hometown every holiday season. Living so far up north, it got dark early so it was always great to see a little extra light downtown with those decorations. Here in Las Vegas, most of our holiday decor is in casinos and shopping malls. We haven’t had municipal decorations on our Main Street for some time. This year, though, this will be changing. All along Main Street between Hoover and Oakey there will be holiday decorations on our light poles! There will be stockings, snowflakes, and a tree or two adorning our light poles starting just before Thanksgiving.
We would like to thank Super Pawn for their generosity in making this happen. They not only paid for all of these ornaments, they also collaborated with Assemblywoman Heidi Swank, Councilman Bob Coffin and the City of Las Vegas to ensure that each year the city will put them up, take them down, and store them between holiday seasons. With the street changes that will be happening this year on Main Street, our new decorations won’t light up this holiday season. But just you wait until next!
Holiday decorations inside, outside, and streetside are a lot of what make the holidays special. This year enjoy your holidays and have a festive time decking your own halls!