Cotton Father Frost and glass stars: Decorating Soviet era New Year’s trees

January 3

We often recall antique toys when decorating New Year’s trees with new bright baubles and garlands. These toys or ornaments, including fairytale glass birds and animals, as well as ordinary looking but amusing fruits, vegetables and berries made from coloured cotton, merry beads and stars, remained in cardboard boxes somewhere in storage lofts for 12 months waiting patiently for their finest hour.

Today, Soviet-era Christmas tree decorations are part of family and museum collections. For example, the Garden Ring Museum features many typical representatives of the three main types of ornaments, including cotton, glass and cardboard items. This and Mosgortur story talks about the most interesting toys.

Old new ornaments

The first New Year’s decorations appeared in Russia in the 19th century after Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, the wife of Nicholas I, suggested decorating fir trees with ornaments. This tradition caught on all over the country. At that time Russia lacked Christmas tree toy makers and they had to be imported from Europe. Glass baubles were expensive, and many people in pre-revolution Russia made paper and cardboard decorations.  

In December 1929, the Pravda newspaper carried an article declaring that, from now on, there would be no Christmas celebrations. They were replaced by routine work. The production of fir tree toys, launched in the late 19th century, was stopped.

New Year celebrations were reinstated in 1935, and Soviet era fir trees needed ideologically approved decorations. Angels gave way to balloons, airships and aircraft, and red penta-stars replaced the Star of Bethlehem. Factories, plants and workshops opened all over the country and started making cotton, cardboard and glass toys. On 1 January 1937, Pravda reported that the Soviet Cultural Goods Trading Company (Soyuzkulttorg) had sold New Year’s tree toys worth over 15 million roubles nationwide. This figure increased by three times the next year. By the late 1930s, the country had lots of specialised shops offering New Year’s tree ornaments, toys, masquerade suits and other holiday goods.

Cotton decorations

Cotton became a popular and inexpensive material for making Soviet era New Year’s tree ornaments. In the 1930s, the country’s workshops were filled with cotton goods. Cotton was fastened to a wire frame, and faces were made with wax, papier-mache or putty. Once painted, the faces were fireproofed with wallpaper paste. Multicolour cotton and paper suits were also made. Ready-made toys were covered with special glue and tiny artificial glass beads for “snow.”

Major production shops in Leningrad, Moscow and other large cities, as well as Kultprom (Cultural Industry), Children’s Toys and New Year Tree Toys workshops, the Shaumyan Moscow Artisan Workshop, the Hygroscopic Cotton Association’s factories and graphic art studios in Gorky Park made numerous Soviet-era figurines and themed ornaments. Artists and workers conceived red-cheeked Young Pioneers, little rabbits, Snow Maidens and polar explorers. Factories and workshops displayed their best toys at competitions, where visitors could select from among the new toys. 

Fruits and vegetables, animals, large figures of Father Frost and Snow Maiden, as well as infants and little pigs in blanket envelopes, were the most popular models.

New Year magicians and their granddaughters, up to 100 cm tall, were the sturdiest toys ever. Decades after their production was discontinued, it was still possible to buy well-preserved cotton Father Frost figurines at New Year’s fairs.

Mass production

Toy models were made with various techniques. Before 1939, cotton toys were hand-made. Experts from the All-Union Scientific Experimental Institute of Toys suggested a new production method using special cast iron and plaster molds and dies. The die-casting method helped boost production.

Several other automated production methods were invented soon afterwards. Miniature animals, including rabbits, squirrels and elephants, were made using the hot-stamping method. Each figurine was assembled from two stamped sections and covered with special nitro-cellulose lacquers. Only a few shops used this method in the 1940s, but most of them converted to mechanised production by the early 1950s. The Shaumyan Moscow Artisan Workshop made some of the most popular decorations using the hot-stamping method.

The spindle coil method from automatic spindle-shaped cotton-coiling machines made it possible to make fruits, vegetables, berries and mushrooms with their spherical shapes. The Hygroscopic Cotton Factory in Leningrad became one of the first companies to start using this technology in 1936.

Although production of cotton decorations didn’t survive the 1960s, these toys are now becoming popular again. Individual artisans and craftspeople, rather than factories or workshops, make cotton toys today.

Glass toys

Russia started making its first glass fir tree ornaments in the late 19th century. However, they were somewhat expensive, with one ornament costing about 20 roubles, and one ornament set could cost up to 200 roubles, the price of a high-quality grand-piano.

Most glass decorations arrived from other countries because Russia lacked glass production. The first glass plant opened in Klin in 1848; it manufactured vials for chemists’ and perfume shops and lamps. The company started turning out glass toys during World War I when German prisoners of war taught Russian glass-blowers how to make glass decorations.

The first glass toy manufacturers, including the Kultigrushka (Cultural Toy) Leningrad Artisan Workshop, the Moscow City Executive Committee’s Factory of Glass New Year Tree Decorations, and the Krasny Oktyabr (Red October) and Reshetnikovsky Glass-Blower workshops, were established in 1936. In the late 1930s, they made glass ornaments with images of Communist Party leaders, glass figurines of Red Army soldiers and horsemen from Semyon Budyonny’s First Cavalry Army, fairy tale heroes, circus performers and pentagon-shaped stars.

Fruits and vegetables, including apples, carrots and corn cobs of all colours and sizes, became the most popular glass toys in the 1950s. They were a mandatory component in any toy set. In the 1960s, toy sets called 15 Republics and 15 Sisters featuring glass figurines in various national suits became popular along with cosmonaut and spacecraft toys. The toys also reflected various cultural events. The protagonists of popular animated cartoons and comedies caroused on fir tree branches. These included protagonists from such comedies as Circus, directed by Grigory Alexandrov, and Eldar Ryazanov’s Carnival Night.

Glass production

All Soviet-era New Year tree glass decorations were subdivided into several types, including multi-size ornaments of fruits and vegetables, animals and birds, faceted lanterns, star-shaped and spear-shaped treetops, tableware and military equipment. Hand-made wire-frame figurines covered with artificial glass pieces and beads were mass-produced and stood out.

Glass-blowers made toys using glass pipes or assembled them with special equipment. Molten glass was shaped a by slowly rotating the glass pipe without stopping. A sharp pointer was used to make indents, grooves and strips in the hot blank. Sometimes, the blank was placed in swing-open dies and molds to give it the desired pattern or relief. After cooling off, glass items were covered with silver and painted. Caps with fasteners were attached to the ready-made figurines which were then packed.

Soviet and foreign toys differed in terms of their fasteners, weight and décor. Imported toys, mostly from the German Democratic Republic, were attached with a special fastener and a spring on a cloth-hanger. Some decorations didn’t have to be fastened at all. They were glued inside a specially shaped cap that differed from the Soviet style.

German-made glass ornaments were famous for their extremely light weight and design. All treetops and pinecones decorated with gold and silver threads or mohair lace originated from Germany because the Soviet equivalents were never decorated.

Cardboard decorations

Paper and cardboard were popular and affordable materials for New Year tree ornaments. Russian craftspeople copied the decoration-production process from German artisans manufacturing the famous Dresden paperboard containers and cardboard. In the 19th century, Dresden’s production shops manufactured stamped figurines by pasting together two convex cardboard pieces and coating them with gold and silver paints. Unlike glass decorations, these inexpensive and shatter-proof ornaments quickly occupied fir-trees all over the world. 

In the 1920s, only private workshops made cardboard ornaments all over the Soviet Union. Manufactured decorations appeared in the 1940s. They resembled Dresden-style paperboard containers but were flatter. Fish, bird and animal figurines, as well as fairytale heroes, were more popular than the rest. Soviet newspapers and magazines printed their templates, and anyone could make these toys and ornaments at home by copying the drawings on cardboard.   

Factories turned out stamped and glued paperboard containers. Stamped paperboard containers were made with special forms. After stamping and die-cutting, a figurine’s two sections were adhered together and painted with an airbrush. Tiny details, including eyes, mouths or fins, were hand painted.

The glued cardboard manufacturing process called for cutting out a toy’s sections along dotted lines and pasting them together with carpenter’s glue. Colour paper, tinsel, ribbons and textiles were pasted onto figurines in the form of pleats and strips. Glued cardboard items included various houses and toys, baskets, animal figurines and lanterns. The ornaments had loops and fasteners to hang on the branches. Soviet factories manufactured cardboard toys until the 1980s.


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