Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hand Crafting a 19th Century Christmas

A favorite of mine.

    Christmas is coming and time is running out. For the past few months I have been working, long and hard on a Christmas project for the tree , at My Old Historic House. Christmas in America is a rather new holiday. Until Victoria took the throne in England, very few people knew or celebrated Christmas. Victoria's husband, Albert, was from Germany, and in Germany they celebrated Christmas. This was toward the middle of the 19th century. Albert brought evergreens into the palace and sent for decorations from Germany. News traveled all over about this custom, and the Christmas tree was born. Word soon reached America and slowly the custom became popular here as well. It wasn't until the 20 century that every home had a Christmas tree. The 21 century has taken Christmas to a new level, making it more about buying and spending than the real joy of the season.
    In 1860, the period to which I have decorated ,My Old Historic House, Christmas was still rather new in America. I am sure very few homes had trees, unless you  lived in a large city or were of extreme wealth. Rural areas were slow to pick up new traditions. Hazekiah Elgin, who built my house, was a man of great wealth. He was also a Riverboat Captain and had a paddle wheel steamer and had access to finer things, having traveled from port city to port city. New Orleans and St.Louis were both considered pretty large cities at that time. So I am sure he had heard of this thing called Christmas. I have no records, so I just have to assume, he did. Mrs. Elgin would have taken on the task of the Christmas tree decorations. Store bought ornaments were few and far between and had to be ordered from catalogs months in advance. Most people made there own Christmas tree decorations. That is what I have done this year and want to share with you.
    Victorian "scrap," also known as lithography, is colored printed paper and usually die cuts, that were used in Victorian times by both children and adults, for various past times and collections.Scrap first appeared in the middle 19th century. Most were made in Germany and Great Britain. These pre-cut scraps ,were relief stamped and embossed to give them a three-dimensional look and feel. They were,and are, sold in sheets and can easily be pulled apart.Collections of scarps were pasted into special albums and Victorians mixed calling cards and greeting cards and any other pictures they likes or wanted to save. The Victorians were very Romantic and loves sentimentality and keep shakes. Scraps were used for decoupage, collage,gift cards, Valentines, and Christmas ornaments. This is very much like the scrap book  craze, that a lot of Americans are into today. These scrap books can be found on today's markets, but, they usually fetch a very big price. There are several companies making reproductions today. I for one, have a hard time telling the new ones from the old. Sometimes the new ones are a slight bit thinner than the old ones. So for this project I have ordered  my Victorian Scraps over the computer. They were mailed to my door step. In the 1800's, scraps would have been ordered from a catalog and shipped in the mail, just as they are today. So this part has not changed much.
      I have used 6 inch gold paper doilies  for my ornaments. These are not always easy to find, but most places that sell cake making supplies handle them. Buy a lot of them, as it takes several, sometimes for one ornament. I gathered all kinds of things for this project. A trip to Hobby Lobby and Ben Franklin, where I bought gold cord, tinsel robe, beads, colored stones and various other items of interest. I had no directions, I just set out and made it up as I went along. I used a glue gun, as glue seemed to take to long to set and was not strong enough to hold the weight. Snap, snap, snap of the glue gun trigger and I had an ornament. I trimmed the tinsel garland with scissors to make it smaller, as I had no luck finding it that way.Making these ornaments is a several step process. First I traced around  the gold doilies  on poster paper and colored construction paper. I cut each of these out by hand. I glue the colored construction cut out to the poster board cut out and then the gold one on top. All thee layers are needed to give strength. After this you can trim as you like. I have added depth sometime by putting one layer on top the other and spacing it with a small square of cut cardboard. I usually run a gold garland piece around between these two layers.One could use old jewelry as well and scraps of lace and  other found objects.

    I made garlands for my tree out of ribbon roses. These roses were made by Victorian ladies to decorate there hats, dresses and homes. It takes about one yard to make one and it is a simple procedure of folding right angles and turning. I have made several hundred. After I made a dozen, I taped them together in a line using green floral tape. I left a couple of inches between each rose. I used a simple green garland (this comes in 20 foot pieces from any department store) and wrapped between each rose all the way down the line. I tapped each end with green floral tape. I chose to make the garland in sections for several reasons. One it is easier to tape and make, and two, I can loop them on the tree much easier. I plan to connect each section of the garland to the next with a pretty bow.
    I also made little baskets from the gold dollies as well. I used a half one and did the same there layers . They were bend around and glued  together. You will need to hold each one for a minute or so, until the glue has time to set. These can then be decorated in any fashion, with any materials  you have or want to use.
     I do not plan to use electric lights on my tree, as lights were first used after 1900.  I do have a large collection of clip on candle holder for the tree. I will add these, with tiny 4 inch candles, but never plan on lighting them. These candles were usually lite only on Christmas eve or Christmas day. There was always a bucket of water setting close by in case of a fire. Many  wonderful homes were lost with fires from these Christmas tree candles.
    All the gold, glitter and beads from the ornaments will catch the light and make the tree seem to be lite, weather it is or not.

    I am hoping to use a real tree, as I have never seemed to like the fakes. They sure are handy and a lot less mess.They are all two full and perfect.  I love the old fashion Balsam trees that seem to have a Charlie Brown appearance, with the limps far apart and some long and some shot. This makes  room for my big hand made ornaments.I have been known in the past, when forced to use a fake tree, to cut a few branches out and put short ones where long ones go and vice-versa.  Usually real trees are not available till after Thanksgiving. It is a good thing as they dry out so fast. I have to go to St.Louis, 70 miles away ,to find a tree like this. It has been a awhile since I bought one and Lord knows what it will cost.I have my heart set on a eleven footer. I am hoping for nice weather with no big snow storms, so I can have a few open houses and tours.
     I hope you like my hand crafted 19th century Christmas project. Feel free to try your own hand at making some. You can find the scrap art pieces on many sites on the net. Just type in Victorian scrap art on the search bar. One is a good as the next, price is the only factor. Maybe you can come and take a tour and see my tree. . Just come by anytime. I will leave the lights on and Sissy Dog will meet you with a jump and a kiss.  Happy Christmas crafting.

My tree topper, it is 18 inches tall.

Top of the tree topper.

bottom of the tree topper.

You can see how they catch the light.


This was the river scene last night as Sissy and I walked home from the shop.