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We study the history of Soviet Christmas tree decorations on the exhibits of the Garden Ring Museum.

When decorating a Christmas tree with new bright balls and garlands, we often remember old toys. For a whole year they were waiting in the wings in cardboard boxes somewhere on the mezzanine: fabulous glass birds and animals and completely prosaic, but very funny vegetables, fruits and berries made of dyed cotton wool, funny beads and, of course, stars. Perhaps a few of these old friends still take pride of place on your tree.

Soviet New Year decorations are now kept not only in family collections, but also in museum collections. For example, in Museum “Garden Ring” You can find many typical representatives of the three main types of Soviet Christmas tree decorations – cotton wool, glass and cardboard. The most interesting of them can be found in a joint article by and the agency “Mosgortur”.

Old new toys

The first New Year decorations appeared in Russia in the 19th century – the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree with toys was introduced by Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, the wife of Nicholas I. At that time, there was no own production of Christmas tree decorations in the country, so toys were brought from Europe. Glass balls were very expensive, and most of the citizens of pre-revolutionary Russia made jewelry themselves, from paper and cardboard. In December 1929, an article was published in the Pravda newspaper, where the Christmas days were declared ordinary working days, New Year’s trees were banned, and the production of Christmas tree decorations, which began at the end of the 19th century, ceased.

After the return of the New Year holidays in 1935, the Soviet tree needed new decorations – ideologically consistent: balloons, airships, and airplanes took the place of angels, and the red five-pointed star replaced the Bethlehem Star. Factories, factories and artels were opened throughout the country, producing toys from cotton wool, cardboard and glass. On January 1, 1937, the same Pravda reported: “Soyuzkulttorg sold Christmas tree decorations all over the country for more than 15 million rubles.” A year later, this amount has almost tripled. By the end of the decade, specialized stores were operating throughout the USSR, selling Christmas decorations, fancy dress and other attributes of the holiday.

Cotton wool jewelry

One of the most widespread and inexpensive materials for making Soviet Christmas tree decorations was cotton wool – in the 1930s, there were plenty of this raw material in the factories of the country. The basis was a wire frame around which cotton wool was attached. Faces were made of wax, papier-mâché, or mastic. After painting, they were covered with paste – it protected the toys from ignition. The costumes were also made of cotton wool or paper painted in different colors. Finished toys were sprinkled with “snow” from small bugles and fixed with a special compound.

A lot of figurines and plot decorations corresponding to the Soviet theme were produced by all large enterprises in Leningrad, Moscow and other big cities: the artels “Kultprom”, “Children’s Toy”, “Christmas Toy”, the artel named after Shaumyan, the “Gigrovata” factory and the Gorky Park Art Gallery. Red-cheeked skiers and pioneers, bunnies, snow maidens and polar explorers were invented by artists and workers. Who would become the new hero was determined at competitions in which factories and artels presented the best examples of Christmas tree decorations.

The most popular models were fruits and vegetables, animals, large figures of Santa Claus and Snow Maiden, and baby swaddling clothes, representing babies and pigs in envelopes made of blankets. The New Year’s wizard with his granddaughter were the most persistent – large figures up to a meter in height were made so soundly that even several decades after the production of these toys was discontinued, well-preserved cotton Santa Clauses could be bought at New Year’s fairs.

Mass production

Different models of toys suggested different production methods. Until 1939, all wadded Christmas tree decorations were made by hand. By the decision of the All-Union Scientific and Experimental Institute, a molding method was introduced – cotton wool decorations were made using special cast iron and plaster molds. After the invention of molding, the production of wadded toys increased dramatically. After a short time, several more automated methods for creating Christmas tree decorations were invented.

Miniature animals – rabbits, squirrels and elephants – were made by hot stamping: the figurine was glued from stamped halves, and then covered with special nitro-lacquers. This method was practiced in only a few factories in the 1940s, but by the 1950s, almost all production of cotton toys had switched from manual to mechanized. Some of the most famous jewelry created by hot stamping was produced by the Moscow artel named after Shahumyan.

Fruits, vegetables, berries and mushrooms with their rounded shapes were obtained thanks to the spindle winding, when a special spindle machine was used to wind cotton wool. One of the first factories to use this technology in 1936 was the Leningrad Gigrovata.

The era of cotton wool Christmas tree decorations in the USSR ended in the 1960s, but today it is experiencing a revival. Cotton toys are no longer made by factories or artels, but by individual craftsmen and artists.

Glass toys

The first glass Christmas tree decorations that appeared in Russia at the end of the 19th century were very expensive. One ball cost about 20 rubles, and for a set the seller could ask for all 200 – for this money at that time you could buy a good piano. Most of the glass decorations were foreign – there were no glass factories in Russia at that time. The first glass factory opened in Klin in 1848 and produced only bottles for pharmacies and perfumers and lamps. The company began to make glass toys during the First World War – captured German soldiers taught Russian craftsmen to blow glass decorations.

In Soviet times, factories and artels for the production of glass toys appeared in 1936: the Leningrad artel “Kultigrushka”, the Moscow factory of glass Christmas tree decorations of the toy trust of the Moscow City Executive Committee, artels “Red October” and “Reshetnikovsky glass blower”. In the late 1930s, they released balloons with images of party members, glass figurines of the Red Army and Budennovites, fairytale heroes, circus-themed toys, and five-pointed stars.

Fruits and vegetables became the most popular glass toys in the 1950s – apples, carrots and corn in all colors and sizes were a must in any jewelry set. In the 1960s, together with cosmonauts and spaceships, sets of “15 republics – 15 sisters” appeared on sale – sets of glass figures of girls in different national costumes. The toys also reflected cultural events – heroes of popular cartoons and comedy films made of glass met on the Christmas tree branches. Among the latter were, for example, the heroes of the films “Circus” by Grigory Alexandrov and “Carnival Night” by Eldar Ryazanov.

Glass production

All Soviet Christmas tree decorations made of glass could be divided into several types: balls of different sizes, fruits and vegetables, animals and birds, faceted lanterns, tops in the form of stars and tips, dishes and military equipment. A separate place was occupied by mounted toys – figurines made of glass beads and beads strung on a wire; they were produced in large quantities.

Craftsmen blew toys using special glass tubes (tubes) either themselves or mechanically. The molten glass mass was formed into the desired shape and size during blowing by rotating the dart slowly and continuously. In the still not cooled product, holes, depressions and stripes were made with a sharp stick, or it was placed in detachable forms that already had the desired relief. The cooled glass items were further sent for silvering and painting. The finished figurines were put on a hanging cap and packed in boxes.

Domestic and foreign glass toys could be easily distinguished by the type of attachment, weight and decoration. Imported products, brought mainly from the GDR, had a special fastening – a spring on a clothespin. Some decorations did not involve fastening at all – the toy was glued into a base of a certain shape, which also differed from the Soviet one. German glass Christmas tree decorations were famous for their weightlessness and decoration. The tops and cones decorated with a gimp (thin metal thread) or a terry cord could only come from Germany, because in the USSR these types of glass figurines were never decorated like that.

Cardboard decorations

Popular and affordable materials for Christmas tree decorations were paper and cardboard. The technique of making jewelry was borrowed from German craftsmen, famous for their Dresden cardboard. In the 19th century, embossed figures were produced at the factories of Dresden – halves of convex cardboard were glued together and then covered with gold and silver paints. Such decorations were inexpensive, did not break, unlike glass ones, so they immediately appeared on Christmas trees around the world.

In the 1920s, in the USSR, cardboard toys were produced only in private workshops; factory decorations appeared in the 1940s. They were similar to Dresden cardboard, but were flatter. The most popular are figurines of fish, birds, animals and heroes of fairy tales. The templates were printed in Soviet magazines and newspapers, and everyone could make a toy himself, repeating the drawing of the house on cardboard.

Among the decorations that the factories produced were stamped and glued cardboard. The stamped cardboard was made in special metal molds. After stamping and cutting, half of the figures were glued together, covered with foil and painted with paints using an airbrush gun. Small details like eyes, mouth or fins were hand-painted.

The glued cardboard technique consisted of cutting the toys out along the contour and gluing them together with wood glue. Colored paper, tinsel, ribbons and textiles for decoration were glued to the figurine in the form of pleats and stripes. Various houses and toys, baskets, animal figures and lanterns belonged to glued cardboard. All jewelry had pendants for fastening. Cardboard toys were produced in Soviet factories until the 1980s.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is a translation. Apologies should the grammar and or sentence structure not be perfect.

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