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- Antiques and Collectibles
- Inside Antiques:
- Christmas angels have a heavenly history
- By Robert Reed
- For more than a century now, the Christmas angel in wax,
paper, cloth, wood, or other materials has decorated the holiday
- Once considered merely ornaments or trimmings, their diversity
and enduring background of craftsmanship makes many of them highly
- Writing of Christmas in the 1870's, Phil Snyder in
the Encyclopedia of Collectibles told of angels made of cotton
and wool. Breaking tradition, they were sold in stores rather
than made at home.
- "Decorated with embossed paper faces and such details
as buttons, powdered glass and gold paper wings, they were often
the children's favorites," he noted, "probably because
they were unbreakable and therefore were the only tree ornament
children were allowed to play with.
- This December, these very same angels, made in the Thuringian
Mountains of Germany and referred to as Dresdens - the name of
a particular town in the region - are truly treasured.
- Wax angels of Christmas became quite popular towards the
end of the 19th century. Some were solid wax, but most bore a
simple wax covering over a base of composition or papier-mache.
- The majority of waxed angels of
the 1890's and early 20th century stood about four inches tall,
but sizes varied up to 14 inches. Generally, the larger angels
were more expensive when sold then and are therefore considered
the more valuable today.
- "Almost all of them hosted wings of spun glass,"
says Robert Brenner, author of Christmas Past, "and
many times were finished at the end with a tiny gold paper star
to which a thread was attached so that the wings could be properly
posed in the branches of the Christmas tree.
- The effect was that "many children on Christmas morning
thought that indeed the angels of heaven were hovering in their
- Generally, tree ornaments for Christmas, including angels,
did not come into their own until the middle of the 19th century.
While German glass blowers are known to have fashioned angel
ornaments for limited use earlier, angles of wax poured over
plaster were not widespread in that country until the middle
- By the 188Os, German manufacturers were exporting both glass-blown
and wax angels to the United States, where decorating the Christmas
tree has also become a popular tradition.
- In the fall of 1880, a German importer persuaded Frank
Woolworth to purchase $25 worth of various ornaments for
his few stores in America. "In two days, they were gone,"
Woolworth said later, "and I woke up." In
10 years, Woolworth had expanded to 14 stores and was ordering
200,000 blown-glass ornaments each holiday season.
- By the late 1890s, mail order firms like Sears and Roebuck
were offering items like an angel surrounded by tinsel that was
actually made in the United States and promised to be more durable
than "old style German glass tree ornaments." The Carl
P. Stirn catalog of 1893 also promoted "wax angels with
spun glass wings, suspended on rubbers," for 38 cents each.
- At the height of the Victorian era, angels were offered not
only in wax and glass, but in cotton, wood, straw, china, and
various types of paper.
- Back in the Dresden region of Germany, skilled craftsmen
were using the advancements of chromolighographic printing for
dazzling turn-of-the-century embossed cardboard angel ornaments.
- Eventually, the Dresden-type angels, as beautiful as they
were, were overshadowed by the more durable cotton ornaments
that could be twisted into shapes, and the even more last porcelains
of the early 20th century that came both from Germany and Japan.
- After World War I, the Japanese began a prolonged period
of producing angel ornaments mostly in celluloid or porcelain.
Many of the very early Japanese figures had celluloid faces or
heads, backed by cotton batting and stick-framed bodies.
- Another significant period of angel ornament production followed
in Japan at the end of World War II. This time, Made in occupied
Japan items extended from existing porcelain, papier mache and
celluloid to include wood and soft white metal.
- Besides the leading industrial
countries of the first half of the 20th century, a vast assortment
of Christmas angels came from Mexico and other Central and South
American countries starting the late 1940s and continuing through
the 1960s. The majority of these had their beginnings with native
folk artists where the angel was already a significant part of
their culture. Often, angel figures painted on paper, wood, and
earthenware were exported to other countries for the Christmas
- Currently, the collecting of decorative Christmas ornaments
in general, and angels in particular, is highly popular. Books
like the previously mentioned Christmas Past, and The Official
Price Guide to Holiday Collectibles add to this interest.
- The values of more and more Christmas angels are being published
in various antique and collectible price guides, with prices
frequently dependent on age, material, manufacturer, and condition.
- The exact origin of Christmas angels can be difficult to
determine without some study. Some designs were produced for
but a single holiday season and are therefore automatically rare.
Other designs were made for decades, either by the same manufacturer
or others. Moreover, designs for a specific angel during the
20th century were sometimes altered by the maker or 'borrowed'
between countries during different periods of time.
- Christmas angels, according to most sources, are second only
to Santa Claus in terms of holiday figures produced since the
middle of the 19th century. And since they were often carefully
stored for display only once each year, many fine old examples
- (Christmas angels illustrated in this article came from the
Judith Wright collection, a private individual.)
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