A Vintage Nautical Christmas

By Ann Fisk

vintage glass christmas ornaments in a bowl

My passion for beachcombing and my love of antique Christmas tree decorations led me to an unusual hobby: I collect vintage light bulbs in nautical shapes. These antique lights are called figural Christmas lights.

ship and lighthouse glass antique christmas ornaments

The history of figural Christmas lights dates back to the early 1900s, shortly after people began using electric lights on their Christmas trees. Figural light bulbs were originally clear glass made from ornament molds and then painted by skilled artists in Germany and Hungary. Resembling the ornaments of that time period, these lights were designed in the shape of flowers, fruits, birds, animals, Santas, and angels.

fish and sea bird ornaments made of opaque glass

After World War I (1914-1918), Japan became the predominant producer of figural light bulbs and introduced the use of milk glass for the first time. This white glass made the paint colors more vibrant, increasing the appeal of these unique Christmas decorations.

Their popularity continued to grow throughout the WWII era (1939–1945). Figural light manufacturers created new and colorful shapes, from Japanese Gifu lanterns and snow-covered houses to bells and stars. Even cartoon and Nursery Rhyme characters made an appearance; Humpty Dumpty, Orphan Annie, and Mickey Mouse, among many others, adorned the Christmas trees of that era.

milk glass painted seashell ornaments retro

By the late 1950s the interest in figural lights had faded and their manufacturing was discontinued. Over time, many were discarded as they burned out or were broken. Today, few remain, which is precisely why collectors seek out these light bulbs as rare and treasured antiques.

My collection of these figural lights includes many beach-themed figural lights. Seashells, parrots, fish, a lighthouse, and even a cruise ship are a part of my light bulb collection, which brings Christmas to the beach and the beach to every Christmas!

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2022 issue.

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