Are you vintage enough to remember ‘Shiny Brite’ ornaments?
They began in 1926 as hand-painted ornaments. In 1939, the first machine-made batch was shipped to Woolworth’s Five-and-Ten-Cent Stores, where they sold for two to ten cents apiece.
If you frequent antique or vintage shops, you’ve undoubtedly seen Shiny Brite ornaments, even if you have no idea of their name. The Shiny Brite story begins after World War I with Max Eckardt, a German-born in 1890, who entered the ornament business in 1926, opening a factory where his relatives and employees hand-decorated the glass balls.
In 1937, the Shiny Brite Company was founded. The inspiration for the name is obvious: The insides of the ornaments were coated with silver nitrate so they would stay shiny, season after season.
With the promise that Woolworth’s would place a large order if New Yorks’ Corning Glass could modify its glass ribbon machine (which made light bulbs) to produce ornaments, the lightbulb to ornament machine switchover was a success. In 1937, molten glass was shaped into balls with the help of compressed air. In December 1938 Woolworth’s ordered more than 235,000 ornaments – the first machine-made batch was shipped to Woolworth’s Five-and-Ten-Cent Stores, where they sold for two to ten cents apiece.
By 1940, Corning was producing about 300,000 unadorned ornaments per day, sending the clear glass balls to outside artists for decoration. The ornaments were lined with silver nitrate, then run through a lacquer bath, decorated by Eckardt’s employees, and finally, packaged in brown cardboard boxes. At first, they were strictly silver, but eventually, Eckardt produced red, green, gold, pink, and blue ornaments. Corning also began offering a variety of shapes, including tops, bells, icicles, teardrops, trees, lanterns, and pinecones.
By the 1950s, production reached a rate of 1,000 per minute. (Machines also now painted the ornaments.) The 1950s was the Shiny Brite heyday, with Eckardt operating four New Jersey factories to keep pace with the demand. In 1955, Thor, a Chicago washing machine manufacturer, purchased the company, which eventually produced about 75 percent of the ornaments sold worldwide.
Eckardt died in late 1961, and shortly thereafter, Shiny Brite’s light began to fade, possibly due to the popularization of plastic. In the late 1990s, designer Christopher Radko revived the Shiny Brite name, and in 2001, began selling reproductions of the originals.