From the December 2023/January 2024 Issue  

Shiny & Brite

Writer Ren Miller

Vintage ornaments with a New Jersey connection tug at the heartstrings

Clean glass ornaments with a soft cotton cloth or feather duster to wipe away dust. Water and chemicals will damage the finish.

Family and friends swirl around the Christmas tree hanging shiny baubles, sipping hot chocolate and nibbling delicious cookies. This idyllic scene — sometimes a treasured memory, other times an idealized future — fuels many activities this time of year, perhaps none more so than hanging those shiny baubles.

If you’re a collector, or had parents or grandparents who saved ornaments, you may know the trade name Shiny Brite. The brand’s origins date to 1926, when brothers Max and Ernst Eckardt retrofitted their German toy factory to make blown-glass ornaments as Christmas trees became more commonplace. Decorating a tree, once considered a pagan custom, gained respectability after British Queen Victoria and her German-born husband, Prince Albert, and their children were depicted gathered around a Christmas tree in 1848.

Though not the first to make blown-glass ornaments, the Eckardts were smart businessmen. Max emigrated to the United States in the late 1920s and launched Max Eckardt & Sons in New York City to import ornaments from the German factory. By 1937, Max sensed that World War II was inevitable and knew that German imports would be blocked from entering the United States. He announced plans to make and decorate glass ornaments in the United States under the name The Shiny Brite Co.

Rather than start his own glassmaking factory here, Eckardt, along with an executive of F.W. Woolworth Co., his largest client, approached Corning Glass Co. They proposed that Corning modify some lightbulb-shaping equipment to make round glass “blanks” that would be shipped to new Shiny Brite locations in four New Jersey towns — Hoboken, Irvington, North Bergen and West New York — to be hand-painted, packaged and shipped to retailers. In exchange, Woolworth promised to place a very large order. Corning agreed and, in time for Christmas 1939, it produced more than 235,000 machine-made blanks that Max’s factories decorated and Woolworth sold for 2 to 10 cents each.

Production quickly expanded to include other shapes in a rainbow of colors, many decorated with flakes of mica “snow.” The brand’s heyday was in the 1940s and 1950s. Sales declined as competitors introduced more durable plastic ornaments in the 1960s and ornaments made of other materials in the 1970s. The company went through several acquisitions, but quality suffered and the last owner went out of business in 1981.

Famed ornament purveyor Christopher Radko bought the name and reintroduced Shiny Brite™ ornaments in new and vintage-inspired designs in 2001, giving the brand a new lease on life.

Original Shiny Brite ornaments are widely available in stores that sell vintage items, online and at yard sales for about $20 per box of 12. Identifying them, however, can be tricky because other companies started to produce similar ornaments. Here are some guidelines:
• Pre-World War II Shiny Brites have silvertone metal caps stamped “Made in the U.S. of A.” The earliest ones are ball-shaped with interiors of silver nitrate and exteriors lacquered in primary colors. Later ornaments in this period might be decorated in pastel stripes or with hand-painted flowers in a range of shapes.
• During World War II, when metals were rationed for use in munitions, Shiny Brites had cardboard caps that were tied to trees with string or yarn. No longer silvered, the ornaments were transparent or opaque, some with hand-painted lines and tinsel inside, but even that small amount of metal was eventually prohibited.
• After World War II, the metals caps returned and were crimped with a scalloped bottom and stamped with “Shiny Brite Made in the U.S.A.” The interiors were coated with silver nitrate and the exteriors were machine-decorated with holiday scenes, symbols and words. An adjustable hook would clip into place in two positions to hang higher or lower, depending on the space between tree branches. This option was discontinued in 1960.

Three things to keep in mind: Some styles bridge the decades so they may not be as old as you think • People didn’t always return ornaments to their original boxes so a Shiny Brite box may contain ornaments from other makers. • Some people reuse caps from broken ornaments so a Shiny Brite cap may be found on an ornament from another maker.
The most important thing to remember is that vintage ornaments bring nostalgic enjoyment, and that’s their true value.