By: Alicia Weaver – ISA AM
Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year, in no small part because I have an excuse to unpack my collection of Christmas-themed antiques, heirlooms, and collectibles.
There’s just something special about older, classic decorations. They make our family feel like we’ve stepped back in time a bit. Plus, an antique ornament or collectible creates a connection to the larger traditions of Christmas, as the item you love today was also a part of another family’s Christmas celebrations many decades earlier.
Decorating your house with Christmas antiques is easier than many people realize. Here’s how:
Antique Aluminum Tree
One fun way you can decorate with Christmas antiques is by setting up an aluminum tree, a type of tree with a fascinating and distinctly American history.
Christmas trees were originally a German tradition that first found popularity in the US during the 1840s. For about 100 years, practically all Christmas trees found in American homes were real.
A few attempts at artificial trees achieved moderate success on occasion, notably a brush-wire tree made by the Addis Brush Company, but artificial trees struggled to garner much public interest – until the aluminum tree came along.
The aluminum trees first hit store shelves in the late 1950s, and they were very popular right away. People loved what they saw as a space-age, modern, and glamorous look. The original aluminum trees were silver, but soon they were available in a variety of bright colors.
Tips for Identifying an Antique Aluminum Tree
The popularity of aluminum trees was short-lived, lasting from about 1959 to 1975. Two decades isn’t a lot of time as far as antiques go, which does limit the number of trees potentially available. Fortunately, when stored properly, aluminum trees are incredibly durable.
During their heyday, aluminum trees were made by three manufacturers:
- Modern Coatings, Inc – This Chicago company was the first to mass-produce aluminum trees.
- Aluminum Specialty Company – A Wisconsin company, they sold trees in Midwestern department stores.
- Star Band Company – This Virginia company sold trees in department stores along the East Coast.
If your tree was made by any of those three companies, you might have an authentic collectible from the 1950s, 60s, or 70s.
Antique Christmas Tree Lights
Whether your tree is real or artificial, you can decorate it with antique lights.
Incredulously, before the invention of stringed lights, people decorated their Christmas trees by placing lit candles on the branches. Even though the practice resulted in numerous fires, it remained popular across the country for several decades.
In 1880, Edison invented the lightbulb, and in the subsequent decades, his employees developed and refined stringed lights. Although never originally intended as a holiday decoration, stringed lights became increasingly associated with Christmas after President Cleveland put them on the White House tree.
By the 1920s, Christmas lights were safe, affordable, and widely available from retailers. These early light strings were available in all sorts of different styles, including hearts, stars, and fake candles.
Tips for Identifying Antique Christmas Lights
When searching for antique Christmas lights, look for the NOMA brand. The National Outfit Manufacturer’s Association (simply written as “NOMA” on the packaging) was the largest US manufacturer of Christmas lights for most of the mid-1900s.
Their earliest light strings had cloth-wrapped cords, independently burning bulbs, and tiny beads to help the lights stay attached to the branches. Lights from about 1940 on had all-rubber cords, while fused safety plugs were introduced in 1951.
Antique Christmas Tree Ornaments
Antique Christmas ornaments are another awesome way to decorate your house for the holiday.
Ornaments for the Christmas tree were first sold in stores in the mid-1880s. F.W. Woolworth sold them in his department stores after learning of their popularity in Europe.
Christmas trees were popular for about 40 years before ornaments appeared in stores. Originally, people decorated their trees with fruits, nuts, and other food.
The first Christmas ornaments in the US were glass-blown orbs made by German artisans. German glassblowers, especially those from the town of Lauscha, were already famous throughout Europe for their decorations.
Aside from spherical orbs, glass-blown ornaments in the shape of fruits and nuts were also popular, likely because people already associated those items with tree decorations.
Tips for Identifying Antique Christmas Ornaments
The following characteristics could indicate that a Christmas ornament is an antique.
- Imperfections – Unlike an ornament made by a machine, a glass-blown orb created by a person will have imperfections. Also, look for the pontil mark, a small indentation near the bottom.
- Glass – Most modern ornaments are made with composite materials, while antiques are typically made from glass.
- Paper Cap – If the ornament has a paper cap around the hook, it could be from the 1940s, when metal’s availability was limited by WWII production needs.
Due to their fragile nature, glass-blown ornaments in good condition are often fairly rare.
Should You Have a Christmas Antique Professionally Appraised?
Identifying a potentially valuable Christmas antique is often difficult to do on your own. You’ll need a comprehensive understanding of the item’s history, as well as the ability to properly assess the item’s condition.
If you suspect you own an antique Christmas decoration, contact a professional antique appraisal company for more information. Appraisal companies typically offer two types of services:
- Online Appraisal – After emailing digital images of the item to the appraiser, they’ll determine its approximate value.
- In-Person Appraisal – An in-person appraisal allows the appraiser to create an USPAP-compliant document, which is required by courts, insurance companies, and other professional entities.
Generally, most people who suspect they own something valuable will have an online appraisal done first. Then, depending on the information the appraiser provides, they might request an in-person assessment.
Decorating with antique Christmas trees, lights, ornaments, and more is a fun and festive way to celebrate the holidays. Plus, using vintage decorations helps breathe new life into many fascinating holiday traditions.
While the point of decorating with antiques isn’t to make money, you do want to keep your eye out for any potentially valuable items. When in doubt, contact a professional antique appraisal company for more information. After all, a valuable antique would make the perfect gift to give yourself!