A German Christmas: Collector shares kugles with Miller House

December 18, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Kugel ornaments are part of the centerpiece in front of the mirror on the mantle of the Miller House.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

You can only see a small slice of the room from a doorway at the end of a hall.

Yet, in that narrow aperture, flashes of color attract the eye.

There are deep blues, shimmering silvers, vibrant pinks and golds.

At first glance, they are typical Christmas ornaments adorning a tall evergreen tree.

But there is nothing typical about these glass balls.

Each has had a centuries-long journey — from Europe across the Atlantic to immigrant homes, antique shops and now The Miller House Museum.

They are German kugels — the earliest form of glass Christmas decorations — and they are the focal point of this year's holiday celebration at the 1825 townhouse in Hagerstown's City Center.

The kugels are displayed on the tree in the rear drawing room, as well as a nearby fireplace mantel.

The majority of the ornaments are from the collection of Roger Fairbourn, president of the Washington County Historical Society, who came across his first kugel about 10 years ago.

"It was purely by accident," Fairbourn said. "I had bought a box at Mullendore's Auction which contained an item that I thought would be perfect for my niece's dollhouse."

When he arrived home, Fairbourn began unpacking the box and came across a glass globe that had an interesting look.

"So I started doing some research and discovered that it was a kugel," he said.

The discovery soon turned into a hobby and today, Fairbourn estimates he owns about 50 of the ornaments.

This is the first time that his kugel collection has been displayed outside of his home, he said.

The collection is a perfect fit for The Miller House's Christmas theme, "Ornaments of Yesteryear," said Linda Irvin-Craig, the historical society's executive director.

In addition to the kugels, an assortment of antique holiday decorations are coordinated into floral arrangements created by the Washington County Council of Garden Clubs.

There are Victorian bird ornaments and glass balls from the 1920s and 1930s.

But it's the rare collection of kugels, Irvin-Craig said, that are especially being spotlighted.

The predecessors of these Victorian ornaments began in Europe in an unsilvered form and were often hung in windows to ward off evil spirts, Irvin-Craig explained.

"The belief was that if goblins saw a distorted image of themselves in the balls they would go away," she said.

During the 1800s, as fine glass blowing was perfected, these same balls were made with a silver lining, making them reflective.

Irvin-Craig said they were heavy and usually hung from windows or ceilings or placed in gardens on stakes. The smaller versions began to decorate trees. That's when the kugel, German for ball or sphere, was born.

While balls are the most common kugels — some blown into a ribbed design — patterns also include eggs, pears and tear drops.

Fairbourn said the kugel has a distinctive look, including the brass embossed cap that usually can distinguish its age.

Some of the ornaments might still have the original thread used for hanging.

Another identifying quality, he said, is that the color is inside, as opposed to today's ornaments where the color is on the outside and can be scratched off.

"You can't do that with a kugel," he said.

Irvin-Craig said the baubles eventually made their way to America by European immigrants and were passed down through the generations.

Despite their age, many kugels have survived, Fairbourn said, and have become highly collectible items.

"It might seem like a goofy thing - to collect something that is displayed just a few weeks out of the year," he said. "But, like any hobby and any collection, it's personal. I like things that are unique, that you don't see very often. Plus, it's fun."

Irvin-Craig said the Christmas season is one of the more popular times of the year for the public to visit The Miller House Museum.

For that reason, she recommends calling ahead to make sure that staff or volunteers are available to conduct tours.

Irvin-Craig said Saturday group tours also are available and can be arranged by appointment.

On Monday, Dec. 26, Irvin-Craig said The Miller House will be the final stop on the Christmas Tour of Historic Churches and will be serving refreshments to tour participants.

"We haven't been open to the public in the evening like this in a long time," she said. "The house has a very special allure in the evening."

If you go ...

What: "Ornaments of Yesteryear"

When: 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays through Friday, Dec. 30

Where: Miller House Museum, 135 W. Washington St., downtown Hagerstown

Cost: $5; $3 seniors and students; free for children ages 14 and younger

CONTACT: Call 301-797-8782 to schedule tours. Go to

MORE: Please call ahead to make sure volunteers are available.

The rare collection of kugels are especially being spotlighted at the Miller House Museum.

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