Dresden Ornaments

- Production

Dresden ornaments and other Christmas tree decorations made of cardboard were mainly produced by manufacturers in the luxury cardboard and Cotillion-industry. In the German Empire, the cities of Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin were the main production centres. The companies deliberately settled in cities rather than in the countryside. There were two important reasons for this: First, the location of production was at the place of consumption.[i] It was mainly in cities that balls, carnivals, and other festivities were held. Secondly, the better transport links provided by the railway were decisive, which played an important role in domestic distribution all the way to worldwide export.

The companies produced a variety of Attrappen, bonbonnieres, Christmas tree decorations, cotillon medals, tins, fans, fantasy costumes, objects for cotillon tours, carnival articles, Christmas crackers, lanterns, masks, toys or props for theatre performances and pageants from paper or cardboard. Manufacturers sometimes cleverly combined their products with other materials such as fabric, metal, glass, natural fibres, paints, and varnishes. The mix of materials depended on the costumer’s preference.


Let us first look at the German term "Dresdner Pappe" (paperboard). Is the term correct or should it not actually be more accurately called 'Dresden cardboard'? The difference between cardboard and paperboard lies in the weight per m², but the boundaries here are quite fluid. Everything under 150 g/m² is called paper. Anything weighing between 150 g/m² and 500 g/m² is called cardboard. In the weight range between 500 and 600 g/m² one can speak of cardboard as well as paperboard. Everything from 600 g/m² is referred to exclusively as cardboard. The weight of the basic material for the Dresden ornament pieces should be in the range between 150 and 600 g/m². This means that, because the exact original weight of the manufacturing material is not known, one can speak of both cardboard and paperboard when referring to the Dresden ornaments. Since the term "Dresdner Pappe" has become established, we will stick with it. It is important to note, that this distinction is not made in the English-speaking countries, because only the term Dresden ornaments is used.

The two Dresden cardboard objects that were examined in Cologne.

The material thickness of the pieces is on average between 0.30 and 0.95 millimetres. An examination of two Dresden cardboard objects commissioned by me and carried out by Ms. Kerstin Johanna Merz of the Institute for Restoration and Conservation Sciences of the Faculty of Cultural Studies at the Technical University of Cologne revealed that the cardboard or paperboard used at the time consisted of a mixture of fibres containing wood pulp, semi-cellulose and cellulose fibres.

Further examination revealed that the cardboard was produced by pressing together various moist paper webs (without additional gluing). Pressing the damp paper webs together without using glue resulted in the different layers of the paper webs bonding together less strongly. This becomes clear under the microscope. The Dresden cardboard pieces examined showed that the material can fan out to a small extent over time.

Embossing process

The three-dimensional objects were produced using an embossing process. This required a two-part embossing die. If you wanted to make a stamp, you first needed a smoothly ground metal plate. To create a negative, the desired motif or shape was engraved laterally reversed. Creating the engravings was difficult work and was only mastered by a small group of specialists. The first part of the embossing die made in this way is called the “Matrize”. The second part, the counter die, in which the desired motif or shape was engraved laterally correct, was called the “Patrize”. Stamps made of metal were suitable for high quality requirements and were very durable. For an object that had a front and a back, four stamps were needed.

Example of a larger die (length 25 cm) for a lyre.
Example of a larger die (length 25 cm) for a lyre.

The embossing itself was done by placing moistened paper webs or cardboard between the two parts of the heated embossing die. The moisture and the heat were important for the manufacturing process. We must keep in mind that during embossing the material used is stretched, which means a shift of the fibre layer in the paper. By moistening the paper, it was able to cling well to the die during printing and thus withstand the forces that occur during the manufacturing process. Once the material had dried again, the embossed print was sharp and consistent. The half-shells of objects or animals made of cardboard embossed in this way, were also 'knocked out' or trimmed by the die frame.

Embossing with dry material did not prove advantageous. On the one hand, a higher pressure had to be applied to achieve embossing, and on the other hand, there was a risk that the material used would tear. In addition, the initially sharp relief ornaments began to lose their sharpness or flatten after a short time.


The surface of the Dresden ornament pieces is coloured or silver- or gold-laminated. To this day, collectors are not quite sure how this metallic sheen came to be applied to the cardboard. In this context, I would like to refer to an essay by Christina Nehrkorn-Stege: Vom Schmuck der Engel. Technologische Untersuchungen im Museum für Sächsische Volkskunst (2017)[ii]. She had a laboratory analysis carried out of embossed decorative trims made of cardboard, sometimes referred to by collectors as Dresden ornaments. She concluded from the analysis that the metal overlay on the forms was possible in three ways. Firstly, with a wafer-thin metal leaf overlay, secondly by means of bronze powder and thirdly by applying galvanically produced metal layers.

Let us first turn to possibilities one and two. In the 19th century, bronze powder (consisting of copper and zinc) was popular as a substitute for metal leaf. The bronze powder was almost exclusively applied with the help of liquid or powdery primers and processed with the hot-pressure method. While bronze was used initially, over time producers used more gold leaf. One reason for this was that bronze printing almost always showed a duller, less shiny metallic tone, whereas gold leaf had a full, pure metallic shine. The term 'gold leaf' is somewhat irritating. At the time, gold leaf was used to describe all gold-coloured leaf metals used for printing or embossing. Completely pure gold was never used, it was always faux alloys. The 'gold' always contained other metals, often copper, zinc and silver. Depending on the ratio of the mixture, the colour shade could be adjusted. The more common silver-laminated pieces also never used real silver leaf, as it was too unstable and could easily oxidise. Zinc foils or aluminium leaf were more practical. The great advantage was that they did not tarnish and retained the silver tone. The best metallic shine was achieved with heated presses.[iii] In this process, the board to be embossed was coated or powdered with a suitable binder, then the selected metal was applied.[iv] The pressure of the heated plates caused the binder to melt and the gold or silver coloured overlays to adhere. As the process was done under strong pressure, the metal was polished at the same time as it stuck to the molten binder. The purity and lustre of the metal depended largely on the choice of binder, the strength of the pressure and the correct heat of the embossing plates[v].

The third way of achieving a metallic shine was with electroplated metal papers. Here, with the help of electricity from a metal solution (at that time mostly nickel), the metal was applied in a thin layer to the polished side of a brass plate. A sheet of paper with an adhesive was then placed on top of this layer. After drying, the paper, which was firmly bonded to the metal coating, was peeled off the brass plate. The gloss of the metal paper thus obtained corresponded exactly to the gloss of the brass plate. Depending on whether this brass plate was prepared with a high, medium, or matt gloss, the paper also took on the respective degree of gloss.[vi] The paper could then be embossed.

With the silver and gold laminated pieces, it was found that the surfaces have no unevenness, as would have been the case in a subsequent application process. This means that the desired metal coating was already applied to the cardboard before the embossing process. For the manufacturers of the Dresdner ornament, producing these metal papers themselves would probably have been too costly. They had the necessary metal papers supplied for this purpose. There were special companies for this, such as the Nuremberg gold and silver paper factory Max Buchstein or M. Brünn & Co, both in the Bavarian town of Fürth, which had such prefabricated papers in their range. The Bavarian town of Fürth was the centre of this industry at the end of the 19th century. Between 1850 and 1950, around 150 companies existed here that produced various types of paper in the form of imitation gold, silver, and other metals.


Once the desired half-shells had been embossed and lined, as described above, they had to be joined together at the end. The two parts were not joined with gelatine, as was quite common at the time, but either with the help of a gelatine-based adhesive or with an adhesive mixture containing gelatine. This was the result of the investigation by the Technical University of Cologne. Although many of the companies had in-house 'gluing departments' where they could usually have their products glued together by factory workers, the extent to which this was the case with the Dresden ornament exhibits can unfortunately no longer be said today. It is conceivable, for example, that the manufacturers mainly had the simpler silver- and gold-laminated pieces assembled in-house in their own gluing departments.

On the other hand, the more time-consuming and cost-intensive work, such as attaching bridles to horses and assembling carriages, ships, etc., was probably done by the cheaper home workers for reasons of cost. The centres of full-time homework at that time were in Dresden and Berlin, among other places.

The two pieces were made up of several parts.

Painting the colourful multi-coloured Dresden ornament pieces, was done by experienced workers.

Example of two painted Dresden cardboard objects.

[i] Weissenfels, Karl: Die Standorte der Papierverarbeitenden Industrie Deutschlands. Dissertation Universität Köln 1931, p. 34 f.

[ii] Nehrkorn-Stege, Christina: Vom Schmuck der Engel. Technologische Untersuchungen im Museum für Sächsische Volkskunst, in: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Hrsg.): Engel. Dresdner Kunstblätter 4/2017, p. 46–55. See also: Andés, Louis Edgar: Papier-Specialitäten. Praktische Anleitung zur Herstellung von den verschiedensten Zwecken dienenden Papierfabrikaten. Wien, Pest, Leipzig 1896; Andés, Louis Edgar: Blattmetalle, Bronzen und Metallpapiere, deren Herstellung und Anwendung, Wien, Pest, Leipzig 1902.

[iii] Rockstroh & Schneider Nachf. A.-G. Dresden-Heidenau: Anleitung zur Herstellung von Faltschachteln und Cartonnagen zum Präge-, Blattgold- und Papiermosaikdruck, Dresden 1903, p. 46 f.

[iv] Andés, Louis Edgar: Blattmetalle, Bronzen und Metallpapiere, deren Herstellung und Anwendung, Wien, Pest, Leipzig 1902, p. 147.

[v] Rockstroh & Schneider Nachf. A.-G. Dresden-Heidenau: Anleitung zur Herstellung von Faltschachteln und Cartonnagen zum Präge-, Blattgold- und Papiermosaikdruck, Dresden 1903, p. 55.

[vi] Kühnemann, Fritz; Felisch, B.; Goldberger, L. M. (herausgegeben vom Arbeitsausschuss): Berlin und seine Arbeit. Amtlicher Bericht der Berliner Gewerbe-Ausstellung 1896, Berlin 1898, p. 697.