Crafts from the Past: The Beauty of Victorian Ornaments
by Megan Compton, Adult Education Assistant, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
As member of the staff at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, it has been so exciting to see what happens behind the scenes during preparations for Dominion’s GardenFest of Lights. Each year, I look forward to hearing about the next theme and what Garden staff members are planning. Last January, I learned that the 2014 theme, A Legacy in Lights: 120 Years from Bicycle Club to Botanical Garden, was going to incorporate Victorian holiday décor. I was thrilled, since my husband and I have collected Victorian Christmas ornaments over the past 13 years.
It started on our honeymoon… my husband and I have a mutual interest in the Victorian era and Victorian antiques and décor, which is why we decided to honeymoon in Cape May, New Jersey. While browsing in an antique shop during our stay, we came across three original Victorian scrap or die-cut and tinsel ornaments. We had never seen anything like them before. They were beautiful and very unique. Thankfully, they were also inexpensive, and we were able to purchase them as a keepsake from our trip.
Following that first purchase, we became very interested in learning more about Victorian scrap ornaments and we have added to our collection. Scrap ornaments, like the ones we purchased were usually hand-crafted by Victorian ladies and/or children. The ornaments were composed of a color image on embossed paper which was produced using the chromolithograph color printing process. To produce a chromolithograph, each color was applied separately and dried before the next layer was applied. The process allowed up to twenty different colors to be produced, which had not previously been possible. Images were produced in sheets, which were then coated with gelatin and gum, embossed, and cut out using steel cutters (hence the name die-cut). In the late 1800s, die-cuts could be purchased in sheets connected with tabs or were sometimes cut out of Christmas postcards, magazines, or other printed materials. Both secular and religious topics were popular, including St. Nicholas or Santa Claus, children, angels, cherubs, gift-giving, and flowers. Ladies magazines of the day included directions for ornament making. To create the ornaments, women or children would embellish the die cuts with wire tinsel, spun glass, colored cellophane, crepe paper, cotton batting, and/or “Dresdens” (embossed metallic paper shapes from Germany). In addition to the paper ornaments, Victorians also used scraps, tinsel, and crinkle wire to embellish blown glass “kugel” ornaments.
Scrap ornaments have become highly collectible and reproductions are common. When looking to purchase original scrap ornaments, it is good to know that reproduction scraps are made by off-set printing and are not chromolithographs. They are usually less rich in color and printed on much thinner paper. Reproduction tinsel will also be much shinier than the original. There are, however, some online companies today that craft reproduction Victorian ornaments from original materials. These are quite beautiful, but also usually rather expensive. Original Victorian ornaments can be found for a wide variety of prices, depending on the rarity of subject matter, amount of embellishment, and condition.
My husband and I have continued to collect vintage Victorian scrap ornaments, original die-cut scraps, vintage postcards and old bits of tinsel to use in crafting our own ornaments. It has been wonderful to be able to share my interest in Victorian Christmas ornaments with the Garden, and exciting to see how the Victorian-style decorations were incorporated into this year’s interior décor. Garden volunteers used metallic pipe cleaners to mimic Victorian tinsel when creating the cigarette trading card scrap-style ornaments for the Conservatory Tree in the North Wing. Also, the gorgeous decorations created by horticulturist, George Cowart, and his volunteers in the Robins Room include copies of original Victorian chromolithograph holiday postcards that my husband and I have collected over the years.