Thursday, December 23, 2010

Touring Michigan - Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park

On our recent road trip, we visited the Frederick Meijer Gardens and their current exhibit, "Christmas Holidays and Traditions Around the World".

The exhibit includes 40 "international" trees, unfortunately that portion of the exhibit was rather disappointing - just very stereotypical, themed trees, with commercial ornaments.

But there was one notable exception, the Victorian Tree, covered with a collection of over 3500 antique ornaments.

Beneath the tree, something I've never seen before - molds used to form the ornaments.

A few of the ornaments were wire wrapped. Today that wire is a bit tarnished, but when new they caught and reflected the candlelight then used to illuminate Christmas trees.

Czechoslovakia was known for beaded ornaments, in many designs, from a simple snowflake type of design to bicycles, grasshoppers, butterflies, spiders, and spider webs. These were made out of tiny beads strung together with wire, and then hand-shaped into ornaments.

Dresden ornaments were figural ornaments made from embossed, pressed cardboard manufactured by the craftsmen of Dresden, Germany. Usually finished in silver or gilt, these intricate pressed cardboard decorations were formed in the shapes of a variety of animals, vehicles and objects. Highly detailed, many even have moving parts such as wheels that really turn. They were only made for a relatively short time, from about 1870 to 1910.

The Dresden factories would stamp out the parts, and then cottage workers would assemble the pieces at home. Some are painted. Most are either gold or silver, so they almost look like metal when you first see them.

The German glass Christmas ornament industry evolved out of glassmaking for scientific equipment, test tubes and vials, that sort of thing. But there was also a glass-bead industry for fashion, When glass beads for fashion went out of style, German glassblowers started making round balls called kugels.

A "Kugel" is a particular type of 19th century glass ornament. The first Kugels were brought to America from Germany in the 1860's. These were thick, often large, glass ornaments with a dull sheen and large, flat and decorative caps. They are clear or colored glass which is silvered on the inside. Round ones are the most common, but there are also elongated kugels and kugels in the shape of a bunch of grapes.
In the mid 19th century, a glassmaker from the German village of Lauscha developed a method for producing molded glass ornaments. By 1890, the Lauscha glassblowers perfected the use of molds, called formsachen, in their work. Though blowing an ornament in a mold was a time-consuming but fairly simple operation, it paved the way for mass production. Skilled craftsmen made the molds from wood or clay. They designed the object and then cast it in a plaster-of Paris-like material. With a reusable mold, the glassblowers could reproduce an ornament many times over.

An enormous variety of ornaments–from over 5,000 different molds--came out of Lauscha between 1870 and 1940.

By 1880, full-sized trees decorated with expensive imported German glass ornaments became the rage with the elite. American F. W. Woolworth reluctantly agreed to display a few imported German glass ornaments to his Lancaster, Pennsylvania, store in 1880. To his amazement, his original $25 shipment sold out in two days. By 1890, he was traveling to Germany to select his wares.

I was completely fascinated by this tree, every ornament unique and beautiful, fragile little treasures from the past.

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