Immigrants Ornaments and also Heritages recounts the 1950s rise of Christmas bulbs

Colorado News

Jody Pritzl is the author of the book, “Immigrants, Ornaments and Legacies-A Story of American Made Glass Christmas Ornaments.” 

A student of the past, Jody subscribed to her first history magazine at age 11.  For the 2019 published Christmas book, Jody spent hours at the Denver public libraries and at the Rakow Research Library in Corning, New York.  To tell an accurate story, the book took over 10 years to complete including interviews with the descendants of ornament makers.               

Jody is a member of the Golden Glow of Christmas Past, a member of the Colorado Author’s League and a docent at the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver.  An ’80’s transplant from Wisconsin, Jody has a communications degree from Metropolitan State University and a master’s degree from Regis University.  

The following is an excerpt from “Immigrants, Ornaments and Legacies.”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


2020 Colorado Authors League winner

Bright Colors Bright Sales

Figure 12.1: Shiny Brite™ Skiing Snowman, 1950

The early 1950s continued the happy, traditional feelings of the post-war 1940s.  American boys asked Santa Claus for a Roy Rogers toy gun, cowboy clothes and Lionel train sets.  Girls hoped Santa would bring houses for their dolls.  Monopoly was a popular board game for families and both men and women joined bowling leagues.  Husbands shopped for power tools to build things with wood while wives protected their dresses with aprons while they cooked.  On Fridays, Catholics abstained from meat by dining out at local fish frys.  

Max Eckardt knew a good thing when he had it.  An astute businessman, he realized the patriotic fever of the war years still mattered to consumers.  Unless he was forced to, Shiny Brite™ of the early 1950s would still be sold as they had been since 1946.  Consumers were used to seeing the Shiny Brite™ logo, which was identical to the first one used by K and W Glass.  They trusted the Shiny Brite™ brand boxes dressed to sell with the help of Santa Claus and Uncle Sam.  

Figure 12.2: Shiny Brite™ Box, 1946 

Before Corning began mass production of glass bulbs in 1939, the market size was estimated between $1 and $2 million. By 1950 the U.S. glass bulb market was estimated at $7.5 million with 80% of the volume domestically produced.  Corning sent half of their 100 million bulbs in 1951 to Max Eckardt and Sons.  Despite a doubling of demand, there were still just the two original Shiny Brite™ decorating factories in West Bergen, New Jersey, and West New York, New Jersey.  Twenty-five million bulbs were also sent by Corning to George Franke Sons for decoration with the remaining output shipped to Coby Glass and a few other small customers.

Jody L. Pritzl

At the beginning of Corning production, Max bet Armory Houghton Senior, Corning Glass president, that Shiny Brite™ sales would reach one million dollars.  Houghton was skeptical and said, “I doubt you’ll ever reach that volume but if you do, you can have anything that Corning makes for a prize.” When Shiny Brite™ sales reached landmark sales of $1 million, Houghton paid his bet.  Delivered to Max and Dorothy Eckardt’s Rye, New York, home were Corning glass place settings with enough cups, plates and finger bowls to host 24 people.  

While sales had grown substantially, the three main Christmas bulb firms didn’t have 100% of the ornament market.  First, tree toppers were popular and Corning Glass did not want or could not produce the long and fragile 9” or 11″ objects.  Secondly, there was a market for ornaments that could not be easily produced in standard molds.  Americans still wanted Santa Claus ornaments to hang on trees but they would never be made in the United States.  Finally, the United States government somewhat assured Germany would always make Christmas ornaments.    

After World War II ended, Max Eckardt would have a disappointing business experience.  On behalf of the United States government, the Shiny Brite™ owner went to Europe to help re-establish the West German ornament trade.  Max and his wife avoided Lauscha and Sonneberg where relatives still lived.  The two cities, so responsible for developing the Christmas trade, were now part of communist East Germany.  The citizens that had carried the ornament business literally on their backs for decades were shut out of the industry post war.  It was so dire for citizens that American soldiers in 1949 held back 20,000 East Germans trying to cross the border to freedom.  

In East Germany, what few ornaments were made became a black market.  Bartered for razor blades, coffee, and cigarettes (all difficult to find in East Germany), ornaments were smuggled underneath barbed wire fences to West Germany.  Max and Dorothy focused their mission on the city of Neustadt, now part of West Germany.  Eckardt made an attempt to work with young glass blowers who weren’t really interested in ornaments.  With just a handful of men trained, the experiment by the U.S. government and Max was a disappointment.

While training future glass blowers failed, Max did bring mass production back to Germany in his own Shiny Brite™ factory.  He had closed his East German facility and moved the equipment to a new factory in Wallenfells, West Germany.  Once again Germany was a significant country in the Christmas glass bulb market, making 20% of the sales volume.  What wasn’t familiar to United States shoppers buying German ornaments was the box.  Instead of using the Uncle Sam box, German Shiny Brites™ were exported to the United States with an emphasis on craftsmanship, not patriotism.

Figure 12.3: Shiny Brite™ Packaging for Made in Germany Ornaments

While a $7.5 million market in 1951 may not seem large in current dollars, the market size would be an estimated $80 million. Shopping for shopping’s sake had become an industry.  While much of the world rebuilt after World War II, American jobs, particularly in union factories, were abundant.  With steady paychecks, American incomes grew by 30% from 1950 to 1955. With more disposable income, in towns like Manitowoc, Wisconsin,shopping became a hobby for women. At the turn of the century, average incomes for German immigrants were about $600.  By the mid 1950s, fourth generations of German immigrants had an average income of $4,418 a year.

“Immigrants, Ornaments and Legacies” by Jody L. Pritzl

With new found prosperity in towns like Manitowoc, Catherine and daughter Martha, the fourth-generation descended from Wernecke immigrants, wore fake fur-trimmed coats, leather gloves and perfect hair when they left the house. Women touched up their makeup and lipstick before, during and after shopping.  In the 1950s, women didn’t wear slacks or sandals or sneakers but seemed to live in high-heeled shoes.  

With more money to spend, consumers wanted different and nicer products than those offered by the dime stores of Woolworth’s and Kresge’s.  In the 1950s, women in towns across America like Manitowoc bought their shoes, hats and dresses at businesses like Schuette’s Department Store.  From 1954 to 1955 across America, department store sales for December increased dramatically.  In cities like Pittsburgh and Salt Lake City, department stores’ sales increased 25% from the previous year.  As fashionable ladies browsed for new items they also bought Christmas.    

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Figure 12.4: Instead of Millions Spent on Christmas, Consumers Spent Billions by the 1950s

Time moved faster and product adoption far quicker than the decades when America transitioned from agriculture to manufacturing.  Christmas invaded American homes along with a new medium, television.  At the beginning of the 1950s just 9% of Americans owned a television set. Five years later, 63% of households in America had purchased a television set, and for most the device could only receive black and white images. Of the millions of television sets in existence, only a few hundred were able to receive the first transmission of color images in 1950. 

Across America, during the month of December in the 1950s it was hard to tell which was more important in family photographs, the Christmas tree or the television set.

Figure 12.5: Christmas Trees Begin to Be Shaped During the Growing Process

While Harvey Stauss proudly posed in front of the Christmas tree and television, neither prop was his. Both belonged to his mother Lilly Wernecke Stauss. Second generations of German immigrants bought televisions to entertain fourth-generation grandchildren. Max Eckardt did the same as an early adopter of television for his grandchildren Lynne, Anne and Allison.  When children came to watch television, Max would tell tales of growing up in Germany.  Lily Wernecke did the same, telling her Christmas stories of receiving a single orange as a Christmas present and decorating the family’s farm-cut Christmas tree with sugar and flour.  So much had changed in the span of 60 years.  

With television, consumer expectations rose and companies could charge more for products with no global competition.  While some Christmas decorations like icicles were still inexpensive at $.05 a package, the cost to decorate an average tree with three dozen decorated glass ornaments had risen to about $5.40. While the retail price for solid glass bulbs remained constant through the 1950s, more sales and profits were made by selling decorated balls and assorted shapes.  

Figure 12.6: American Made Glass Bulb Ornament Prices 

While newspapers, magazines and television were mostly black and white, the Sears catalog had expanded their content and use of color. Children and teenagers across the country combed through 462 pages of Christmas gifts in the Sears Wish Book. Female shoppers saw new purses, gloves and exotic clothing like an oriental kimono. World War II Veterans, now living in suburbs, were eager to decorate the exterior of homes with outdoor floodlights and reindeer mounted on roofs.  In cold climates like Wisconsin, a portable ice rink could be ordered from Sears for December skating.    

For Christmas inside the home, Sears sold cardboard fireplaces.  Not having to climb down a chimney, fathers of the 1950s portrayed Santa Claus in their own red-and-white suit purchased from Sears. Fathers entertained children with two favorite 1950s gifts. Powered by D batteries were Santa on roller skates and a Santa that rang a bell wearing a red-and-white fur fabric coat.  With huge market potential and the loss of the Woolworth’s account, Max Eckardt worked to establish his brand.   

Max had started using Shiny Brite™ as a trademark in the 1940s; in 1954 the brand became officially registered in time for the Christmas season.  A mass market was firmly established for Shiny Brite™ when Sears began showing branded boxes in 1948. By 1956, the new varieties of Shiny Brite™ were featured on nearly a quarter of page 291 in the Sears Catalog.

Figure 12.7: The Classic Shiny Brite™ Picture of Ornaments Everyone Remembers From the Sears Catalog

All of the Shiny Brite™ ornaments pictured on this page of the 1956 Sears catalog had two characteristics: all American made and all machine decorated. Otto Kohler’s 1940 mechanization for the first Shiny Brites™ had been updated. The new process was to first print a silk screen using light sensitive emulsion similar to anything printed with ink. The screen was then stretched across a wooden frame fastened to a semi-automatic machine. By hand, the glass Christmas ball is rotated and the screen moves at the same speed as the surface of the ball. Paint was then forced through an open area of the screen and impressed on the glass ball. 

The top and bottom of the bulb remain undecorated because the screen can only contact the area near the circumference of the ball as it rotates in this Baltimore decorating factory.

Figure 12.8: Decorating at the Henry Heidt Factory, Baltimore, Maryland

The goal of the new technology was to use most of the bulb’s surface, leaving just the top and bottom 1 inch blank for decoration. Each bulb was still made by Corning and typically each manufacturer used the same circumference for fancy images, creating a similar look and feel to the ornaments. In the future, consumers would refer to all glass bulbs with the generic reference of Shiny Brites™.   

Max Eckardt’s brand had a feeling that was imperceptible. Shiny Brite™ ornaments just felt different when they were hung on a tree. According to the Shiny Brite™ design director during the 1950s, “It would be wrong to make glass look heavy…we use bright colors like green, red and blue to convey the feeling of light and majestic.” And it was bright colors that Shiny Brite™ was known for versus price. Still decorated by hand by artists working in a labor pool were polka dot ornaments, striped bulbs and stars.  

Color was also used by the Frankes for their 1959 catalog.  Edward Junior was now just the third head of George Franke Sons in a 90-year period.  With the death of his father in 1956, Edward adopted new merchandising and marketing using color illustrations to sell boxed ornaments along with icicles and wreaths both aluminum and miniature.  He retained the tradition of selling German tree toppers and offering red honeycomb bells.  With new customers and sales fueled by a population with disposable income, George Franke Sons decorated 50 million bulbs while manufacturing five million wreaths and 36,000 miles of garland. While there were many technology advances like television and mass production of glass bulbs, some ornaments like bells were still decorated by hand at the Franke Sons Baltimore factory.

Bells were included as part of the fancy shape assortment and sold wholesale for $.34. There were two types of colors in the assortments for selection. The standard color assortment included red, blue, gold and silver.  The pastel color assortment consisted of pink, cerise, light blue, lime green and orchid.  Franke Sons sold over 60 configurations of standard size Christmas bulbs from 1¾ inches to 5 inches. Franke sold in multiples of dozens to the wholesale trade.  The popular round 2¼-inch solid color package included eight dozen red, six dozen blue, four dozen gold, four dozen silver and two dozen green.  

The Franke product line had grown to include packaging configurations for different types of retailers.  While they sold dozens packed in boxed cardboard, there were also assortments packaged for self-service stores in cellophane.  Ornament packs of six bulbs were also sold and miniatures 25mm and 14mm metric sized. The Frankes sold three sizes of tree toppers, 6¾, 9¼ and 11¼ inches, either frosted or as a standard color. It was no longer enough to have products for shoppers to buy.  Edward Junior adapted and still retained some of his legacy roots by selling boxes. A marketing gimmick of department stores was to offer free gift wrapping.  Edward Franke, just as his grandfather had done in the 1870s, sold paper boxes for gifts of lingerie, men’s shirts, silks, shoes and slippers.         

For brands to succeed there had to be a good product, sold for a good price, available when the customer wanted to purchase it and active promotion.  For a time, Max Eckardt advertised Shiny Brite™ ornaments on television.  But the main venue for product promotion remained the old media of newspapers and magazines. Each of the rival ornament firms aligned with two popular magazines. Through advertising, their products were associated with the magazine’s content, which was typically thought trustworthy.

The magazine that had been trusted for war news, Life Magazine, became George Franke Sons’ venue for marketing.  Max Eckardt and Sons received the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for Shiny Brite™ to use in magazine advertising. Consumers trusted the seal that meant the product had been tested in Good Housekeeping laboratories and was backed with a two-year warranty. Both firms used the credibility of Life and Good Housekeeping magazines to increase their sales, each including a reference on the packaging.

With a multi-million dollar opportunity each year, the ornament firms would not give up but they would copy.  With shopping now a leisure hobby, the ability to capture impulse purchases grew more important.  Ornaments, once only sold by Woolworth’s and Sears, were now available at department stores and discount stores. All of the bulbs were the same — it was a matter of convincing customers to buy when they saw them. Both George Franke and Max Eckardt created colorful displays to feature their products and entice shoppers to buy.     

Figure 12.9 Shiny Brite™ Merchandiser
Figure 12.10 George Franke Sons Company Merchandiser

It was the exact same Corning blank bulb from the 1940s with modernized packaging.  Still, some Franke heritage elements were retained. When the founder George Franke built his Baltimore factory on Eutaw Street, he carried the crest forward from his European heritage. The Frankes proudly carved a large decorative capital “F” into the building. Franke ornament boxes repeated the crest elements featured on the Franke building.

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Figure 12.11: The F Logo of George Franke Sons Company Brought to the United States From Germany

When the 1950s drew to a close, some of Christmas was the same as it had been for fifty years. Trees were not shaped and trimmed during cultivation so they displayed more naturally. Tinsel was still carefully draped on branches. Ornaments were now brightly decorated with more colors and designs. As the 1950s drew to a close, Christmas memories were preserved in color photographs or in black and white as they had been since the turn of the century.

Figure 12.12: A 1950s Christmas Photograph

— Buy “Immigrants, Ornaments and Legacies” through Amazon.com.
— Read an interview with the author.

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