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A guide to vintage Christmas ornaments from some bay area collectors

TAILYR IRVINE | Times A color wheel sits on display in Annette Ross' home in Gulfport. The color wheel was used to color aluminum trees in the late 1950s when you couldn't hang lights due to fire hazard.
Published Dec. 16, 2018

A vintage Christmas ornament collector is naturally drawn to things they remember from childhood.

That's why the bulk of 52-year-old Hugo Porcaro's ornaments are from the 1940s, '50s and '60s. He unboxed them recently in the Gulfport living room of Annette Ross, 55, a like-minded friend.

Their ornament collections number more than 1,000 pieces. Their mothers and grandmothers passed them down, or they found familiar baubles again through antique shopping.

"We'll buy a whole giant bag of junk," Porcaro said, "just to get the ornament at the bottom."

Porcaro and Ross are part of a small community of ornament collectors in Tampa Bay. In the past, Ross hosted the Christmas Collect-O-Rama in Gulfport. It's not happening this year, but she and Porcaro agreed to stage some of their best stuff in her living room so the Tampa Bay Times could get a look.

World events influenced Americans' ornaments over eras, and you can see this in the details of Porcaro's and Ross' collections. Read and learn. But if you want to build your own collection, here's some advice from Ross.

"The Christmas season is the worst time of year, it's way too competitive," she said. "The time to hunt Christmas ornaments is in the middle of summer."

1920s and earlier

Materials have evolved over the years, mostly for safety reasons. Some of Porcaro's Santa ornaments from the 1920s were made from celluloid, a transparent plastic once also used for movie film. The material was incredibly flammable, and that was an era when people would still decorate trees with actual candles with metal holders. Ross' oldest piece is a folkloric-looking papier-mache Santa from around 1915.

1930s

These art deco candle holders are from the 1930s. TAILYR IRVINE | Times

Ross has a pair of sleekly curved, art deco Santa Claus candle holders from the 30s on her mantle obviously influenced by the style of the time. In the 1930s and earlier, many glass ornaments came from Germany and were intricately painted, followed by ceramic ornaments from Japan (this was considered a golden age for ceramics from that country) which were less expensive.

1940s

During World War II, trade embargoes with Germany and Japan led to ornaments being produced in the United States at a time when metal and other materials were being preserved for the war effort. The ornaments from this era were often clear with only a little paint. The Corning company made many of them. Sometimes the hangers were made from cardboard to save metal, and some of these have actually survived. You also find some unusual colors around this time.

This handmade paper ballerina dates to the 1940s. TAILYR IRVINE | Times

"Uglier, to me, is more interesting," Porcaro said. "When I find yellow I get excited. They make very few yellow Christmas items."

1950s

The postwar era brought newfound prosperity for Americans, meaning new materials and more money to spend on decorative items such as the aluminum "bottle brush" trees that showed up in the '50s. Pink is the rarest and most valuable color for those metal trees, said Porcaro, and the most sought after for collectors.

Spinners were designed to hang over lights bulbs so that the heat of the bulb would make them spin. TAILYR IRVINE | Times

The '50s also brought the introduction of plastic decor. Ross has a plastic blow mold Santa from this time made by Union Products, the company famous for introducing the pink plastic lawn flamingo made via the same method.

1960s

These "knee huggers" are from the 1960s. TAILYR IRVINE | Times

Most vintage aluminum trees are silver, which worked well with the 1960s Space Age innovation of the "color wheel," a transparent, plastic disc with a light to cast the tree in different colors. The idea was that you wouldn't need to actually decorate your tree anymore, but people did anyway. And as with everything else in design, trends are cyclical. Ross' collection of '60s "knee huggers," elf dolls (including some rare, bearded "hillbilly" elves) whose arms are wrapped around their knees, look very similar to the Elf on the Shelf dolls being sold today.

1970s

By the '70s, things were getting downright groovy. Porcaro has Christmas "bubble lights" from that era which contain a liquid that moves when they're plugged in. "People are obsessed with bubble lights," he said. They'd look great near a lava lamp.

Bubble lights bubble when plugged in. TAILYR IRVINE | Times

Contact Christopher Spata at cspata@tampabay.com. Follow @SpataTimes on Twitter.

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