Antique Appraisals

What’s It Worth?: Christmas collectibles offer history of holiday in America

What’s It Worth?

This card from 1889 was published by Louis Prang, a German immigrant who published the first Christmas cards in the United States.
This card from 1889 was published by Louis Prang, a German immigrant who published the first Christmas cards in the United States. Contributed photos

The holidays are fully upon us! Most every family has traditions of some sort. And, many are centered on the tree and images of the season.

In today’s What’s It Worth? readers ask about two very common Christmas items, a holiday card and glass ornaments.

Q. These ornaments belonged to my grandmother, but I have no idea when or where they were purchased. She was born in South Dakota in 1909, then lived in California. I lived with my grandmother for a few years in the 1970s. She and I used these and other old ornaments on her little Christmas tree. She died in 1989, and the ornaments were in a closet in her house for more than 25 years. I found them in 2014 while getting my family’s property ready to sell.The string of small ornaments is literally a cotton string with cardboard tabs at the ends. The yellow ornament is some kind of early plastic, maybe Bakelite? — Nancy in Pasco

A. Glass ornaments are among many German and Austrian Christmas traditions that were adopted in the New World. Germany also gave us the Christmas tree and tinsel. The holiday song Silent Night came from Austria.

Ornaments made of glass were first used in rural German provinces as early as the late 17th century, but they were not exclusively decorations for the Christmas season. There were many small family run glass houses that produced ornaments; some are still in business today.

Christmas tree ornaments didn’t catch on as holiday decorations elsewhere in Europe or England until the mid-1800s. They became popular and a “must-have” item in London after newspapers printed illustrations of Queen Victoria’s royal tree in 1846. The glass decorations had been imported from her husband Prince Albert’s native Germany.

Just before the 1880 holiday season in America, a traveling salesman convinced merchant Frank Woolworth that he should carry a few glass tree ornaments in his Pennsylvania store. They were an immediate hit, and Woolworth went on to become a millionaire — partly by selling as many as 200,000 ornaments annually.

While late 19th and early 20th century ornaments like Nancy’s are a cherished part of many family holiday celebrations, they can generally be found in good condition for $30 or less.

The yellow nut-shaped ornament in the photo is more likely to be celluloid than Bakelite.

Q. Last summer, this framed holiday print was in an eastern Oregon auction. I felt fortunate to be the winning bidder at $7. The size of the image is 6 1/2 inches high and 5 inches wide. It is signed “Prang & Co. Boston 1889.” Can you provide some details? — Amy in Hermiston

A. From its size, this appears to be a framed Christmas card by the famous Prang company. Any time you receive a Christmas card or when you send one, the spirit of Louis Prang might be looking over your shoulder.

Prang didn’t invent these cards, but he is the man credited with popularizing the Christmas card in America, just before the turn of the 20th century.

Christmas cards were first used in England in the early 1840s, when a man named John Horsley received a commission to paint a little card depicting a happy family enjoying holiday festivities.

“A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” was printed on that first card.

Within a decade, the new cards were all the rage in England.

For the next 30-plus years, Americans who wanted to send the new cards (and it seems not too many did) had to import them.

In 1875, Prang, a German immigrant, published the first U.S. Christmas cards at his lithographic shop in Boston.

By 1881, the company was making more than 5 million of the cards each year. The first ones didn’t carry a Christmasy theme, but it was only a few years before yuletide images like this cute little girl and her berry sprigs dominated the designs.

Prang was a stickler for quality, and his beautiful cards are still favorites with collectors today. While most sell in the $20 to $30 range, we have seen some priced as high as $100. With this good-looking period frame, we’d place this image at the top end of the range.

Terry K. Maurer, Tri–Cities personal property appraiser, is a senior member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. For possible use in a future column, direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What's It Worth? by email to tchwhatsitworth@gmail.com.

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