When I was a kid, my parents (being antique dealers) always had a hodge podge of different antique decorations for the holidays. Tiny plastic choir boys, a somewhat weary looking elf, a flapper styled angel, and an abundance of colourful metallic glass bulbs adorned our tree. To this day, when I think Christmas I think of those cheerful glass ornaments. They were from the 1940s and 1950s. Although ours were from a variety of companies, the most popular of these vintage glass ornaments was made by a company called “Shiny Brite”.
Shiny Brite ornaments were created by American businessman Max Eckardt in 1937. Shiny Brites were proudly made in the USA (a selling point during WWII as previous to this many glass ornaments were imported from Germany). They were mass-produced in a process that started with unadorned glass bulbs supplied by the Corning company that were then hand decorated and machine lacquered in Eckardt’s factories. The inside of the bulb was coated in silver nitrate giving the decorations a, well, bright and shiny look. They eventually came in a large variety of colours including classic red and green, purples, pinks and icy blues. The colours could be solid or patterned. They also came in a large variety of shapes including balls, tear drops, icicles, finials and pinecones. They proved extremely popular and at their peak came out of four separate factories in New Jersey.
The classic Shiny Brite box. Notice Uncle Sam shaking hands with Santa Claus!
Interestingly, the history of the Shiny Brite ornament was directly impacted by wartime America. Early pre war ornaments often had large sections of opaque silver and metallic colour. After WWII was declared, decorative silver nitrate became a “nonessential” use of metal, so many of the ornaments were stripped of any silvering, and were mainly transparent with only hand painted colour on the outside of the bulb. These transparent bulbs are some of the most sought after and prized for collectors.
The hooks are also a good indicator of age. Early Shiny Brites had metal hooks and tops. During the war, these hooks were replaced with cardboard tabs from which the owner would use string to hang the ornament. Some bulbs from the wartime era also included a sprig of tinsel inside the bulb for added sparkle, but even this small use of metal was eventually prohibited.
This image from I Adore Style
When the war finally ended in 1945, restrictions on metal receded, and the iconic “Shiny Brite” ornament was reborn. Using sharp metallic colours, glittery mica flakes, and metal hooks and distinctive crinkled tops (stamped with the words “Shiny Brite” and “Made in U.S.A.”) these ornaments became even more popular. They remained affordable for families and flourished until plastic ornaments came on the scene in the late 1950s. For reasons I guess had to do with durability and cost, plastic was preferred over glass, and the Shiny Brite company closed their doors in 1962.
Close up of an original Shiny Brite top
Although this is an antiques blog, I must point out that there are some really nice reproduction Shiny Brites made by the Christopher Radko company. Since 2001 Christopher Radko has reproduced some of the most popular Shiny Brite lines and you can find them in lots of stores (I found some at our local Homesense). They are quality decorations and a great way to get the vintage look in new, pristine condition.
As nice as the reproductions are, however, real Shiny Brites are a great piece of history and well worth the search. They are still quite easy to find online and in vintage stores. If you want to collect real Shiny Brites, there are a few words of warning: Some sellers mistakenly use the manufacture’s name “Shiny Brite” to refer to any ornaments of this type. In some dastardly cases, the tops and hooks may also be replaced to “create” a Shiny Brite from just another vintage bulb. Also, people recommend buying only in original boxes, but it can be tricky to determine if a box for sure contained the ornaments for sale.
As is the case with anything, there is an element of “buyer beware” to collecting Shiny Brite ornaments, but this warning should not dissuade you from these charming items. Most dealers are honest and will answer your questions truthfully. Shiny Brites used to be an easy flea market find, but now depending on the style and age of the ornament the price will vary. Even in you find damaged ornaments, you can still use these to create wonderful decorative wreaths or as filler in vases and bowls. With a little searching and a keen eye you can still find affordable vintage Shiny Brite ornaments that will bring sparkle, cheer and history to your Christmas season.