Dresden Ornaments

and Other Christmas Decorations

Dresdner Pappe und andere weihnachtliche Dekorationen

Texts by Volker Lechler

Like many other collectors, my passion for Christmas tree decorations began with glass and cotton wool objects. At some point I read an article about Christmas tree decorations made of cardboard. In collector circles these ornaments are known as Dresdner Pappe. In the English-speaking world they are called 'Dresdens' or 'Dresden ornaments'. I was quickly fascinated by this particular type of Christmas ornament, which was finely detailed and embossed by the manufacturers. As a historian who is always looking for the beginning of a story, I researched the origins of Dresden ornaments in books and on the web. I wanted to learn more about the production method and the producers. To my astonishment, I found that little is known about the history of Dresden ornaments. To satisfy my own curiosity, I began my research among collector friends and dealers. This led me to archives and museum libraries. In the process, I realised that what we collect as Dresden ornaments is a colourful hodgepodge, consisting of Attrappen, bonbonnieres, Christmas tree decorations and items for cotillon-tours that were very popular at the time. I will try to go into a little more detail about all of these on this website.

What I have discovered so far, I would like to make available on these pages to all other inquisitive people, in the hope that we can all pool our knowledge and learn more and more about the history of Dresden ornaments.

The time frame in which Dresden cardboard was produced can be roughly narrowed down. Presumably, the first such pieces were produced in Dresden by Carl Wenzel before 1870. The actual heyday of Dresden cardboard began around 1870 and had its peak between 1880 and 1900. Its end was heralded by the beginning of the First World War in 1914.

It was to be decades before Dresden cardboard objects became known again in collector circles. One of the triggers for this was the standard work Christbaumschmuck. Ein Buch für Sammler und Liebhaber alter Dinge published by Eva Stille in 1979. (The work is a substantially expanded and redesigned new edition of the book Alter Christbaumschmuck published by Eva Stille in 1972). In the chapter ‚Papier und Karton‘, she reports of Christmas tree decorations made of cardboard. Stille's book was published at a time when the Iron Curtain still divided Germany into East and West. At that time only very few West German collectors were aware that this special cardboard Christmas tree decoration had ever existed. However, this was just as true for the city of Dresden. Even in the city of its origin, Dresden ornaments had fallen into oblivion.

This is not surprising when you consider two factors. Firstly, even back then Dresden ornaments were not widely used as Christmas tree decorations. One must come to this conclusion when looking at the still numerous existing photos of historical Christmas trees. On these, one can primarily find a wide variety of glass balls, tinsel, and occasional cotton wool figures. Dresden ornaments can only be found very occasionally, even though this special form of Christmas tree decoration was advertised by the producers of the time as a low-cost variant. As an example, I would like to show a studio photograph from 1907 in which at least twelve Dresden ornaments can be seen.

Another reason why Dresden ornaments have fallen into oblivion is because most of the very delicate Dresden ornaments were simply lost over the decades and through the devastating turmoil of the Second World War.

Much has happened since then. Dresden ornaments became one of the most sought-after collectors' items of Christmas tree ornaments. This had the effect that prices rose and continue to rise. Some of the rare, unusual, and elaborately designed objects (such as items combined with people, carriages, cars, ships, animal heads or firecrackers) now fetch prices of several thousands of euros or dollars at international auctions.

Where there is a lot of money involved, forgeries are usually not far away, but it is not at all easy to imitate the quality of the original pieces with their fine embossing and the patina that has developed. In America, there is a producer who tries to model his products, which are clearly labelled as new, on historical Dresden ornaments. However, you can immediately tell the difference between old and new by the embossing and the colours. Nevertheless, there are unfortunately always 'dishonest' sellers who try to sell the new pieces as 'old' Christmas tree decorations to the unknowing. In the end, the only thing that helps the collector is experience and a look at the few relevant specialist publications.

In der Zeitschrift Welt der Frau wurde im Jahr 1905 eine weihnachtliche Illustration veröffentlicht, die ebenfalls Dresdner Pappe Objekte am Weihnachtsbaum zeigen dürfte.

I would like to mention a few examples here. Collectors are usually guided publications, which contain numerous illustrations. The following are some good examples:

– George Johnson: Pictorial Guide to Christmas. Ornaments & Collectibles. Identification and Values, Collector Books, Kentucky 2004

– Sammlung J. G. Hrncirik: Luxus aus Pappe. Dresdner Christbaumschmuck 1870–1914 (Eigenverlag 2010) und dem dazugehörigen Nachtragsband (Eigenverlag 2013)

– Wiltrud Elbert: Kostbarkeiten aus Karton. Dresdner Christbaumschmuck 1870–1920 (Eigenverlag 2016)

Unfortunately, the work Güldener Karton begun by Zervi Utz, which would have contained numerous truly rare objects, was never completed. Anyone who has been infected by collecting fever knows that it takes years, if not decades, to build up a reasonably well-founded knowledge of one's collecting field, despite the reference works. This is also the case with me. I have been collecting for many years now, but what I present to you here is only a snapshot, without any claim to completeness. Many questions, such as who all belonged to the circle of manufacturers and what the exact production steps were, can only be partially answered. Güldener Karton.

On this website you will also find a picture gallery, which is intended to show the variety of Dresden ornaments. To further this endeavour, I would be very happy if collectors would provide me with photos of pieces from their collections that are not yet shown here on the website. Any information about other manufacturers would also be very welcome!

Accompanying the topic of Dresden ornaments, I would also like to discuss a few other aspects of Christmas decorations, Christmas tree ornaments and the history of Christmas on this website. You will find the texts on these in the keyword index under the heading ‘Christmas miscellanies’.

I hope you enjoy reading and while doing so, will gain some new insights.