December 24, 2011

An Alternative History of the Christmas Ornament

The Christmas ornament is a curious object. Its success is directly dependent on its ability to legibly communicate symbols of nostalgia, religion, and/or popular culture. The evolution of the ornament has been (perhaps accidentally) documented through the US Patent process and digitized for the masses via Google.

Early ornaments evoke a somewhat mystical, Primitive Hut phase of decoration. These late-19th century decorations were composed of natural tree twigs, small beads and fabrics, manipulated into primitive geometric shapes of circles and ovals. 
"It will be seen that the ornament is of a brilliant and beautiful nature, its beauty being increased by covering the balls with colored floss-silk, said silk being wound around the balls and concealing the periphery thereof." - Bernhard Wilmsen, US Patent No. 424,916, ca. 1890 (pictured above)
As the complexity of ornamentation grew in the early to mid 20th century, it was possible to embed new narratives into the object. These stories were most notably driven by either religion or family heritage.

"the entire assembly will be of attractive appearance and will, when agitated, respond with a bell-like tinkle." - John Sexton, US Patent No. 328,708, ca. 1940
Geometrical complexity was driven by the popularity of the star as religious symbol:

Millard Pretzfelder's "Christmas Tree Ornament," ca. 1936.

Jack Burnbaum's "Christmas Ornament," ca. 1966.

As three-dimensional ducks emerged to compete with two-dimensional decorated sheds, new innovations in the structuring of ornaments were required. The hook evolving from an object of utility to an object of desire:
JoAnn Matthews' "Christmas Ornament Hook," ca. 1990.

Dale Dieringer's "Christmas Ornament Hanger," ca. 1995.

John Brown's "Ornamental Hook," ca. 1998.

And while the representation of some patents lacked inspiration in the laziest of ways...

Anthony Giglio's "Phosphorescent Coloring Method" applied to a Christmas ornament, ca. 1993.

Dominik Grube's "Combined Card and Christmas Tree Ornament," ca. 1995.

...others succeeded. We found the most compelling ornaments to be those which sought to perform double (or sometimes triple) duty. Tree watering devices, fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, and so on all camouflaged as ornaments. We've labelled these as heroic objects, and seek to find their architectural equivalent someday.

Anthony Panetta's "Fire Safety Christmas Ornament," ca. 1978.

Michael Mastriano's "Combination Greeting Card, Ornament, and Seed Germination Box," ca. 1983.

Katie Sands' "Christmas Tree Self-Watering Ornament," ca. 1991.
Ken Swerdlick's "Christmas Tree Watering Ornament," ca. 1996.

Yeoun Soo Jung's "E-Z Christmas Tree Waterer," ca. 1996.

Peiki Tsou's "Christmas Tree Ornament-Shaped Fire Alarm," ca. 1997.

Until then, Merry Christmas, you guys...

Brigette Talevski's "Santa Claws," ca. 1990.

Lloyd Fuss' "Christmas Tree Ornament," ca. 1990.

Brian Kucheran's "Christmas Ornament," ca. 1993.

Andrew Lewis' Mistle-Toe Christmas Ornament, ca. 1995.

David Whitman's "Illuminable Christmas Ornament," ca. 2003.

Juliane Puntch's "Christmas Ornament," ca. 2004.