Jody Pritzl is the author of the book, “Immigrants, Ornaments and Legacies -A Story of American Made Glass Christmas Ornaments.” A student of the past, Jody subscribed to her first history magazine at age 11. For the 2019 published Christmas book, Jody spent hours at the Denver public libraries and at the Rakow Research Library in Corning, New York. To tell an accurate story, the book took over 10 years to complete, including interviews with the descendants of ornament makers.
Jody is a member of the Golden Glow of Christmas Past, a member of the Colorado Author’s League and a docent at the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver. An ’80’s transplant from Wisconsin, Jody has a communications degree from Metropolitan State University and a master’s degree from Regis University.
The following is an interview with Jody Pritzl.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
What inspired you to write this book?
One of my favorite childhood memories is decorating my Grandmother Caty’s Christmas tree. She had these really bright and colorful Shiny Brite ornaments. They were bought shortly after World War II and packaged in a green cardboard box with a picture of Uncle Sam and Santa Claus shaking hands.
As an adult I started accumulating a few Shiny Brite ornaments (okay, enough for multiple trees). I’m a curious person and I wanted to know when the ornaments were made, how much they cost and who was responsible for creating them. So I spent some Saturdays at the Denver Public Library. Wading through decades of Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News published during December, I found prices and some identification answers. The universe brings us what we need.
I was at the Brass Armadillo Antique Mall and found an obscure 1977 book on glass Christmas ornaments by Maggie Rogers and Judith Hawkins. With the $5 purchase I learned about the start of the industry in Germany during the 1800’s. My love of history meshed with nostalgia and the project kept growing. I wanted to give Christmas geeks some information to identify their ornaments passed down from generation to generation. I thought it was a really cool history lesson about Christmas and the companies that created a portion of the industry. I didn’t know I’d spend 10 years on the book to get it right.
I also grew up spending a lot of time with my very German great-grandmother who loved to tell Old Country stories. Her home was across the street from the National Tinsel Company in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. National Tinsel was one of the first companies to make tinsel and sell Christmas decorations. It was founded by a German immigrant. As I poked around on Ancestry.com I found that the firms primarily responsible for the industry of Christmas decorations were all founded by German immigrants.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
While I started out researching Shiny Brites and the story of Max Eckardt and Sons I quickly found a rival company, George Franke Sons. I had an ah-ha moment realizing that Shiny Brite was really a generic term used to describe a style of Christmas ornaments that were hugely popular after World War II.
All of the ornaments were made by Corning Glass Works but decorated and sold by multiple companies. The more I researched I started to see a ton of misinformation being repeated. For example, websites usually reference only Max Eckardt selling ornaments to Woolworth’s but George Franke Sons Company had the contract as well.
Another surprise was the link between Christmas ornaments and toys. Multiple times in history, tariffs had been imposed on German toys. Lumped together in the schedules with toys were Christmas ornaments. So the story has this point of dichotomy of German immigrants arguing to end tariffs on German imports and German immigrants lobbying for tariffs against their former country. American manufacturing became critical because the Frankes and Eckardts couldn’t profitably sell ornaments imported with a 30% or 45% tariff.
There was also information that was difficult to validate. The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, has one of the original Corning E Machines used to make the glass bulb blanks. In collaboration with the research staff we decided to put a stake in the ground and agree that 1946 was the year the hugely popular Shiny Brite Uncle Sam and Santa Claus box was launched.
A lot of what’s been written about Christmas ornaments made it sound like a magic wand was waved and the Shiny Brite brand was born. But there were years of backstory. There were lawsuits and patents by the Christmas firms founded by German immigrants. I just wanted to myth bust that this all happened over night. I also wanted to tell the Franke story rather than relying on regurgitating false or oversimplified generic Shiny Brite history.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?
“Immigrants, Ornaments and Legacies — A Story of American Made Glass Christmas Ornaments” is a mouthful of a title. The first section tells why and how key Christmas company founders emigrated from Germany to the United States. The second section, the ornaments, deals with product history and the backdrop of the times of World War I and II. The final section, the legacies, is what happened to the companies and what family descendants remember of their families’ Christmas business. I like knowing how stories end.
The excerpt is really the crescendo of American-made glass Christmas ornaments. I picked the excerpt because it answers common questions I’ve been asked during book signings. It’s what many people remember of their parents or grandparents’ Christmas trees. Today, new Christmas geeks are collecting ornaments because of their mid-century feel and designs.
Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?
It took me 10 years to research and write the book. I’ll use working full-time and finishing my master’s as excuses for the lengthy process. With time a premium, I printed out pages and edited them as I rode an RTD bus to work and back. The book went with me around the world during business trips. I got so caught up in the story I ended up taking a solo vacation to the Rakow Research Library in Corning, New York.
I got to the point of wanting to humanize all the figures and research. So I tracked down descendants of the company founders and interviewed them. The Franke family, whom I had never met, sent me their company minute book which had incredible documents.
The Eckardt and Protz families were so gracious to share family pictures. Finally, after finishing up a 30-year corporate gig, I published the book last year. I felt I had to. Family descendants of the ornament decorators were becoming elderly. They had trusted me to tell their story. I had to honor that trust and give the founders a fair legacy. Plus it was just fun.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet?
I use the writing software Scrivener but keep most of my research and ideas in three-ring binders and notebooks. Ideally, I start at 8 a.m. in my absolutely quiet office. I think, digest, type, scribble until 10 or 11 a.m. It clears my head and helps me process to take a break by riding my bike or walking.
I’m back at the computer by 1 p.m. typically until 4 p.m. If I’m stuck, authors help me. I grab a writing book like “Story Engineering” by Larry Brooks or “Your Life as a Book” by Brenda Peterson and randomly read a section. Out of the blue, words and ideas for my work come to me. It’s almost like reading about writing cuts through clutter of my thoughts, giving me clarity.
It’s not using prompts but my brain saying, “You know here’s a thought, or try this.” After an hour of jotting things down I take another break. If it’s a good day, around 6 p.m. I add in by computer what I’ve thought about. If I’m draggy or stumped, I lower my expectations. If I’ve written one good sentence it’s been a solid day.
I actually started keeping a writer’s log that includes good sentences I’ve written. It keeps me going. I have a quirky start and end ritual. Next to my computer is a mid-century modern wood pencil case with a sliding cover. When I start working in the morning, I slide the cover and take out my red pen, blue pen and pencil, and I know it’s time to work. At the end of the day, I put the pens and pencil back in the case and the sound of the cover sliding closed means I’m done for the day.
I use music when I’m working on a particular scene or chapter. For one of my next projects, Queen’s, “Another One Bites the Dust” is really relevant so I listened to that song repeatedly. For another project, Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans” is the foundation for a trip a character takes. Small confession: When I was working on German immigrant chapters sometimes I did stream polka music.
My favorite writing activity is to spend an entire day at History Colorado in the research library. I joke with the research librarians that their space is a casino for writers. If you don’t get up and look outside occasionally you don’t even know it’s raining. I’m finding my least favorite writing activity is the grinding out at the end. It’s that point for me when you’ve dumped everything in, you like it but know it still needs work. I’m hoping the writer’s log can help me fine-tune the process. I need to figure out where my time is well spent and when I’m floundering.
What’s your next project?
I’ve got two cool things in the works. I’m working with the staff of the Molly Brown House Museum (now open again) to flesh out the story of J.J. Brown. He was the husband of Margaret (Molly) Brown. That’s why I’ve spent hours at History Colorado.
There is a ton of myth around J.J. finding gold in Leadville, Colorado. It is another story of years of hard work rather than the Browns being an overnight success. I’d been working really hard on the project and then Covid hit.
J.J.’s story is complicated and deep. I’ve reviewed at least 5,000 pieces of information and saved 3,500 documents from my research. There are a ton of footnotes to keep track of and so many details to meld into a story. To take a break from all the heaviness, I wrote a football book.
In November, I’m publishing, “That Championship Year — The Story of the 1980 Washington High School Raiders of Two Rivers, Wisconsin.” I am inspired by underdogs. The town and high school hadn’t won any state championship since before Pearl Harbor. The school and coach then became the first high school in Wisconsin to win three state football championships in a row in 1980, 1981 and 1982.
The book is as much a story of friends and childhood freedom as it is about football. But there’s a lot of football. I’ve talked to the coach, (now past 80) at least 20 times. His memory is incredible. As I’ve read the coach chapters from the book he corrects me, “No, I called the running play to the right not left.” It has been delightful to hear his stories.
When I interviewed the football players, now middle aged, they say winning the championship set the stage for their entire lives. I wanted to honor that legacy and tell their story of grit and determination. That’s why I write. To tell well researched true stories that matter to someone even if it is just one family or individual.