May Your Days Be Shiny and BriteNov 30, 2020 02:16PM ● By Karey Solomon
Wellsboro’s Christmas on Main Street is a Shiny Brite festival—literally. Held every year on the second weekend in December, the festival invites locals and visitors to explore Main Street shopping opportunities while learning about the town that saved Christmas for countless American families. By now it’s become a legend—and while the story points to Wellsboro’s glorious past, this year it also points brightly toward the future.
In the late 1930s, when handblown glass Christmas ornaments became impossible to import from Germany, decorating possibilities looked bleak for many American Christmas trees. At a time when strings of electric lights on a tree weren’t as plentiful, the beauty of most trees depended on the sparkle of glass ornaments. But in the Corning Glass Factory in Wellsboro, where the light bulbs invented for Thomas Edison, and glass radio tubes were being manufactured on glass ribbon machines, and machines were also being built to supply other glass factories, the engineers decided to re-tool a line to create round glass ornaments.
Like the light bulbs, they were manufactured of clear glass. Then the decorating department took charge, coloring the insides and later, ornamenting the outsides of these bulbs. Their clear glass exteriors made the inside colors magically luminous. The American-made ornaments were a hit and became a staple on trees across the country. They were sold as “Shiny Brites” as well as under other names, as the Wellsboro factory had numerous large customers who sold the ornaments under their own brands. Sellers were differentiated by the metal cap that finished the end and provided a hanger. It should be noted the Wellsboro factory eventually created other shapes as well, including Santa Clauses and “Double Dimple Reflectors.”
Over time, the decorations of the ornaments became more varied. In the 1970s, a process of printing images on thin plastic film was developed. The likenesses of sports and movie celebrities, Disney characters, and Currier and Ives scenes were imprinted on this plastic film and heat-sealed like shrink-wrap to the outside of the ornaments. These were also sold across the country.
After the production of Shiny Brites ceased in Wellsboro in the 1980s, and the factory closed in 2016, eBay and antiques stores became the best source for the ornaments. Many Wellsboro residents are collectors. Civic pride and/or a family member formerly affiliated with the factory provide two great reasons to enjoy the variety of local craftsmanship.
The Christmas on Main Street weekend is an occasion to celebrate Christmases past, in part by putting the ornaments on display in shop windows and incorporating them into store displays.
“Different businesses throughout Wellsboro participate by displaying family collections and other collections they’ve accumulated of the Shiny Brite and other ornaments made in Wellsboro,” says Ellen Bryant, one of the Christmas on Main Street organizers. “We have a guidebook on the history of these ornaments each year. We’ve focused on a history of people who worked in the factory or on the different shapes that were used [or some other aspect of the Shiny Brite heritage]. People can go to different businesses and see the displays of the ornaments.”
This year, for Christmas present, and Christmas presents, there’s additional eye candy and more reasons to celebrate. Visitors will have an opportunity to view and purchase vintage ornaments made in the Shiny Brite tradition, thanks to Richard Pope, a long-time proprietor of the recently closed Glass Menagerie in Corning and a former Corning employee.
Some years ago, Richard got the rights to continue producing Currier and Ives ornaments like the ones formerly manufactured by Corning in Wellsboro. Unlike the traditional Shiny Brites, these glass ornaments are 3¼ inches in diameter, Richard explains. He established Vesta Art Glass Company to manufacture and distribute the Currier and Ives ornaments, plus some others, including pieces licensed from the Norman Rockwell estate and two designs commissioned from Norman Rockwell’s niece, Eve.
With retirement in his sights, and anticipating closing the Glass Menagerie at the end of 2019, Richard offered ornaments for sale. About half went to Wellsboro’s Christmas on Main Street group via the Wellsboro Area Chamber of Commerce. He also donated an additional 775 ornaments to the group. Many will be displayed at this year’s event, offering a new visual treat and buying opportunity for attendees.
And then there’s Christmas future. Less tangible than the glass ornaments, the Wellsboro glass factory’s ribbon machine crews produced camaraderie and a pride in their work that outlasted the factory. Despite retirement, former plant manufacturing engineer Skip Cavanaugh has kept in touch with former co-workers and remained aware of some of the ribbon machines he’d helped build and maintain at the Wellsboro plant. Some of those went abroad, some went to other companies around the United States.
Last Christmas, through a former colleague, he heard of two ribbon machines in a now-shuttered factory in Kentucky. The building was scheduled for demolition, the machines sold to a scrapyard. He was able to contact the buyer and purchase them back from the scrap dealer with the assistance of Growth Resources of Wellsboro. They arrived back in the place where they were “born” in early November—no small feat because they’re so large they could only be removed from the building that housed them after part of the wall was torn down. Two massive flat-bed trucks were needed to bring them home.
“It was like seeing old friends return,” Skip says.
They’re currently in storage, but Skip hopes one day they’ll be on public display, highlighting Wellsboro’s century-long history of producing glass for the world. The old glass furnace from the factory is gone, so while Skip could get the machines going again, there’s no source of glass to feed them.
“We would like to have a museum dedicated to the Wellsboro glass manufactory,” he says, pointing to Wellsboro’s century—1916-1920—of glass making. The machines would be the backdrop to the history, “a story of glass people could come and look at. We have a tremendous amount of stuff that could tell the story.” More than 100 years later, it’s still both shiny and bright.