Antique Christmas collection evokes history of the holiday

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Brandon Brockway and wife Lisa have a collection of antique Christmas items dating from the 1880s into the early 1900s. Santa Claus features prominently in the collection. One can see the evolution of the figure over time, from a skinnier curmudgeon to the fat, jolly man now depicted in popular culture. (Contributed photos)

It takes the couple two days to decorate their Harpers Ferry home, starting in mid-November. The displays remain up into January.

Brockway has a variety of ornaments. His collection begins in the 1880s because items—including Christmas decor—became mass produced and more readily available at that time. Previously, people decorated with dried fruit and more natural, homemade items that did not last.

The Brockways also collect antique dolls and other toys, which feature in the holiday displays. “It seems like antique toys and dolls lend themselves to the Christmas period because that’s when kids would have received these items,” said Brandon Brockway. They are pictured in front of a German feather tree, one of the first artificial Christmas trees.

This display showcases some "newer" items, including bubble lights. Sometimes, the original packaging is just as unique as the ornaments inside. The box on the right, for example, is from World War II and depicts Uncle Sam and Santa Claus shaking hands.

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


Brandon Brockway has had a long-time love of history and collecting antiques. His grandparents had heirlooms around the house when he was growing up, and it was only fitting to add to the collection. He and wife Lisa even owned an antique shop in Waterloo for eight years before moving to Harpers Ferry three years ago. Now, Brockway is the executive director of the Prairie du Chien Historical Society.


“I’m into the history of anything,” he said. “I want to find out how things evolved, how things were created.”


This time of year, that interest stems into Christmas, as the Brockways fill their historic 14-room home with a treasure trove of antique holiday memorabilia. It’s all been lovingly collected over two decades through tag sales, garage sales, flea markets, shops and online.


The collection largely includes items from the 1880s to the turn of the century.


“I have a few things from the 1920s and 1930s, but anything past that I’m not really into because, to me, it’s modern,” Brockway explained.


That time period from the late 1800s on is when items—including holiday decor—started to become mass produced. Pieces that pre-date that are rare because of the nature of how people decorated, said Brockway.


“Prior to that, people were putting out dried fruits, maybe gilded walnuts and things they found in the woods. Not actual ornaments,” he said.


Ornaments, Santas and trees feature heavily in Brockway’s collection.


“I like the wire wrapped ornaments and these spun cotton ornaments. They’re from the Victorian period,” he detailed. “I also have indent ornaments which are from the 30s.”


Some ornaments are even hand made using paper.


“They’re scraps from a magazine, then someone would have cut felt and glued tinsel and made an ornament out of it. Here’s a piece of crepe paper they glued to a butterfly scrap. That looks more like a Valentine’s thing,” said Brockway. “Some of those are 120 years old.” 


Other ornaments clipped onto branches, as candle clips were the traditional way to light trees.


“You wouldn’t think to have this as an ornament, but it’s a mushroom,” Brockway said. “That’s like 1910. Then I have a lot of birds—peacocks—that clip on.”


Sometimes, the packaging is just as unique as the ornaments themselves. For example, one box from World War II depicts Uncle Sam and Santa Claus shaking hands.


“It’s a fun, patriotic thing,” Brockway said.


One of Brockway’s favorite trees is a German feather tree. Known as the first artificial Christmas trees, they were wooden trunks with feather-wrapped wires that mimicked pine needle branches.


“They were goose feathers and they were dyed green and individually wrapped. You can kind of see where they’re coming unwound and don’t look like needles anymore, but more like feathers,” he said.


Often referred to as “Charlie Brown trees,” the feather trees look sparse when undecorated. Some people actually pitched them over the years because they weren’t as attractive. But that look was intentional, according to Brockway.


“There’s a space for a candle and flame between the branches,” he said. “I still can’t imagine lighting a tree like that.”


One set of clips Brockway owns are wire with a clay ball attached, a system to keep the candle balanced on the branch.


Through the items, Brockway likes that he can see the evolution of not just decor, but the techniques utilized to keep homes safe during the holidays.


An area where the progression is most interesting is with Santa Claus. Early depictions of Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, showed a mean guy who carried around a stick and beat naughty children.


“And he was really skinny,” Brockway explained. “It wasn’t until the Coca Cola Santa that he became plump and jolly.”


Brockway’s favorite Santa is actually a candy container from the 1880s or 1890s whose mid-section lifts off. Another favorite is a doll from the 1890s.


“These little guys are clay face Santas, and their outfits are cotton. They’re from the 30s,” he said, pointing to more items.


Other Christmas displays include books, paper items and ephemera like post cards and advertising. A pocket watch holder from Paris looks like a sleigh—perfect for holding dolls.


“For some reason, it seems like antique toys and dolls lend themselves to the Christmas period because that’s when kids would have received these items,” Brockway said.


He begins decorating for Christmas in mid-November. The organized process takes two days, starting with the trees, garland and background details on day one. Brockway leaves the more tedious projects—placing the small antique items that require more care—for day two.


Displays differ from year to year.


“Otherwise, it’s boring,” Brockway said.


He enjoys having items that have been handled and decorated with for years.


“That’s the fun of antiques, these things that have survived in good condition and been loved,” Brockway shared. “My favorite thing to find at a sale is when you run into a little cardboard box that says ‘Grandma’s Christmas Ornaments,’ and you open it up and it’s a whole menagerie of things. Icicles and a topper and ornaments. I try to keep those collections intact. I’ll use them, and sometimes I even mark the ornaments so I put them back in the same box.” 


“To me, it’s fun to have that connection with another family that used to drag this out in 1900, 1910,” he continued.


That feeling reminds Brockway of his own childhood. He recalled decorating for Christmas with his grandma at 5 or 6 years old, dragging decorations down from the attic in Hyvee grocery sacks. He still has one of those sacks, which contained a table top tree.


“Nowadays, the ornaments are tacky and I’d never even use them, but I purposely kept that sack intact because it still smells like that attic. I can remember the excitement and anticipation of Christmas, getting to decorate,” he said. “It’s fun to have that time capsule, which is what those boxes I’m finding were for other people.”


Brockway leaves the Christmas collection out into January, before transitioning to winter arrangements. Those include snowmen and other antique or vintage wintery items.


One day, he envisions displaying some of his collection at Fort Crawford Museum so others can enjoy it—and the history behind the items—too.


“I take it for granted because some of this stuff I’ve had for over 20 years now. Then I see other people’s decorations on Facebook and it’s nothing like what I’ve got and I’m like, ‘Oh, I guess I am unique,’” Brockway said. “I can’t imagine decorating with anything but old stuff.”

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