A treasured Christmas collection

Inspired as a young girl by her grandmother’s tree, Ann Blanchard of the Town of Belgium has spent years acquiring precious spun cotton ornaments

A VINTAGE FEATHER TREE at Ann Blanchard’s house is adorned with more than 30 antique spun cotton ornaments. Blanchard said she fell for the charms of the ornaments as a child and, after inheriting a few of the decorations from her grandmother, decided to collect them. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Ann Blanchard’s father gave her a set of stunning cobalt blue, mercury glass ornaments shaped as reindeer when she was a child, but it was the spun cotton ornaments on her grandmother’s tree that really caught the youngster’s eye and captured her imagination.

“I fell in love with them,” Blanchard said. “They just have such personalities.”

After her grandmother died, Blanchard inherited two of those memory-laden ornaments, and she later traded with a cousin to obtain a third. 

Through the years, Blanchard, 86, expanded on that number by buying, selling and trading for other cotton ornaments. They form a collection of more than 30 ornaments that she proudly displays on a vintage feather tabletop tree in her Town of Belgium home.

The ornaments are mostly from Germany, although Blanchard has some from Russia and Japan. 

“I’ve got a Russian one, but there’s no comparison,” she said of the quality of the ornaments. She also pointed out two cranes, one from Japan and one from Germany, on her tree, saying, “It’s just not the same quality.”

Her ornaments run the gamut from snowballs and fruits to animals and figures.

They include a Puss in Boots, several cranes with long, delicate beaks, an outstretched cat with a ball in its paw, a snowman and an Eskimo, a skater, a boy on a sled, a little girl in her coat, a sailor and a baker smoking a cigar. 

There are also cherries, snowballs, apples, pears and bottles of wine in a basket. 

Blanchard said she doesn’t have a favorite ornament.

“I like them all,” she said.

Spun cotton ornaments have a decidedly old fashioned charm. They originated in Germany in the late 1800s and were popular through the early 1900s, when glass ornaments became widely available.

The ornaments got their name from the fact they were made from cotton batting hand-molded around wire forms. 

Few survived, in part because these ornaments were often hung at the bottom of trees where children could play with them. The humidity in many storage areas also damaged many cotton ornaments.

“People probably just threw them away,” Blanchard said. “They’re just getting harder and harder to find.”

An antiques dealer, she started out buying the ornaments and selling them, not collecting them.

“Then I said, ‘Why am I selling these? I like these,’” Blanchard said. “They’re just something unique that no one else has.”

She recalled buying a box at auction that contained snowballs and two Heubach ornaments — cotton ornaments with bisque faces — and others at various markets around the country.

The last cotton ornament she bought was about three years ago — a basket with three wine bottles inside.

Blanchard, who grew up in Port Washington, guessed that her grandmother probably bought each of her cotton ornaments for a dime, she said they are now worth much, much more — depending on condition.

“They’re very sought after by certain collectors,” she said.

After a story and photographs of some of her ornaments appeared in Ozaukee Press in 1983, she said, a Cedarburg woman called and offered her “a lot of money” for one of the cotton ornaments. She didn’t accept the offer.

Recently she saw a unique rabbit cotton ornament sell on eBay for $700.

“It was very involved, very detailed,” Blanchard said. “It was really unique — it was the only one like it I ever saw.”

The price of the ornaments today makes them cost prohibitive in most cases, she said. But that doesn’t stop her from looking.

“I see people post pictures on Pinterest and I just drool,” she said. “They just are really nice.”

Blanchard said her collection never fails to surprise her guests.

“People come in the house and are awed because they’re so unique,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to share them with the world.”

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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