Monday, December 14, 2009

The Beauty of Christmas Kugels

QUESTION: I came across a heavy white glass ornament with what appears to be some sort of decals on the bulbs. Also each one has a colored stone–almost like birth stones–indented into the ornament. All the tops are a gold finish. I have seen a lot of ornaments but none like these. Any ideas?

ANSWER: It sounds like this person has discovered a kugel, a type of heavy glass Christmas ornament made in Germany from about 1840 until 1914. The word kugel means “ball” in German. The first ones were smooth, heavy glass balls that were too heavy to hang on anything but a stout pine in the yard, so people hung them in their windows.

Louis Greiner-Schlotfeger invented the kugel to compete with the glassblowers of neighboring Bohemia who had perfected blowing glass beads lined with lead mirroring solution with produced a brilliant shine. And though he was able to duplicate the lead mirroring solution, he couldn’t hand blow his kugels thin enough. The result was heavy pieces of glass shaped as balls in a rainbow of colors in sizes ranging from an inch in diameter to over 30 inches.

Originally, the glassblowers hung their kugels with bits of wire. After blowing a glass bubble, they snipped it from the blowing tube which resulted in a small neck with a hole leading to the inside of the kugel. They ground the neck down leaving just a hole and attached a decorative brass cap, held in place with wire arms that spread apart inside the glass sphere. Finally, they attached hanging rings to the caps and hung them with wire hooks.

It wasn’t until 1867, when Greiner-Schlotfeger’s village built a gas works that he had a steady, hot, adjustable flame, enabling him to blow thin-walled glass balls. From that point, it was a simple step to blowing glass into cookie molds shaped like fruits and pine cones. While the glassblowers still called them kugels–more specifically Biedermeierkugeln, referring to the Beidermeier Period in which they were made–they technically weren’t any longer and soon people called them Christmas ornaments.

By 1880, full-sized trees decorated with expensive imported German glass ornaments became all the rage among the wealthy. American retailer, F.W. Woolworth, saw these ornaments on a trip to Germany, but was reluctant to order any for his stores–at least at first. To his amazement, his original order sold out in two days.

For more information on kugels, read my article on antique Christmas ornaments.

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