Nearly 50 years ago, Hallmark Cards Inc. introduced a small line of six glass ornaments, with decorative bands featuring familiar holiday images, and 12 yarn figurines, including an elf, a boy caroler, a snowman and Mr. and Mrs. Santa.

By the 1970s, of course, glass-blown and other types of ornaments had long been a decorating staple of the holidays. But Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments, released every year since then, created a new phenomenon and broke new ground in the world of ornaments with light, sound and special effects, as well as new materials.

“Hallmark not only changed how we decorate our Christmas trees, but also created this whole culture of collecting ornaments,” said Jeanine Miller, curator of domestic life at The Henry Ford, noting the company also laid the groundwork for consumers to become collectors. “They’ve also done some cool, innovative things. Their design innovations included using artists to create original designs. They do unique translations of cultural phenomena and design trends. Their ornaments are very distinctive.”

That kind of entrepreneurism and innovation speaks to The Henry Ford, so it’s no surprise that the Dearborn institution recently acquired a comprehensive collection of 6,600 ornaments from an Indiana Hallmark retailer. Dating from 1973 to 2009, the collection includes Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Collectors Club, miniatures and lighted ornaments, along with catalogues, banners, and a few of the store’s documents and point-of-purchase displays.

More than 100 holiday ornaments from the collection are on display outside The Gallery by General Motors at The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation through Jan. 5. Among them are Cell-ebrate, a cellphone collage in the shape of a Christmas tree, from 2007, and Santa’s Answering Machine, a miniature answering machine from 1992, complete with a message from Santa and “Jingle Bells.”

“Hallmark’s Keepsake ornaments have become an essential part of Americans’ holiday traditions,” said Patricia Mooradian, president and CEO of The Henry Ford. “Over the years Hallmark has transformed the way we decorate for the holidays by taking risks and rethinking the design, technology and marketing of its products — all while remaining true to their vision and core values.”

“It’s been fun to look at the ornaments and watch technology change,” Miller said. “This is really just a preview of what will appear down the line. We’ve tapped into traditional Christmas themes, things that relate to popular culture and evolving technology.”

The entire collection will eventually go on exhibit at the museum in the future.

The Hallmark Visitors Center in Kansas City, Missouri, has more than 300 ornaments on display; that number varies as the company changes exhibits, said JiaoJiao Shen, PR and social media director at Hallmark Cards. The Visitors Center draws about 125,000 guests each year. More than 4 million have visited since the center opened on Hallmark’s 75th anniversary in 1985.

Revolutionizing ornaments

Since 1973, Hallmark has introduced more than 8,500 ornaments and more than 100 ornament series. Hallmark releases new ornaments between July and December. Its most recent Keepsake Ornaments feature 125 all-new ornaments, including the first-ever set of artist-crafted outdoor Keepsake Ornaments that are weather safe and shatter resistant.

Hallmark, Miller said, revolutionized Christmas ornaments with the use of sounds, light, unique materials and other special effects, as well as the company’s unique translation of pop culture design trends. The company made the connection to individual interests.

With Hallmark ornaments, people could celebrate personal milestones, everything from anniversaries to baby’s first Christmas to Mother’s Day. They could also choose ornaments that reflected their personalities. Golfers, for example, could find golfing ornaments. Ornaments celebrated movies, sports, celebrities, collecting interests, cultural icons and so much more.

“They had a very creative way of tapping into things,” Miller said. “The collection taps into memories but also shows so many great examples of the innovative things this company did. With those innovations, their goal, once again, was to create a more emotionally connected world. In today’s world, where families live hundreds of miles a part, people are looking for ways to make those connections. Hallmark products, cards, etc., are made to provide tangible ways to do that.”

Family sells collection

The Henry Ford learned about the Hallmark collection through a contact and Miller and a colleague paid a visit to the Indiana store.

The family-owned Hallmark Gold Crown store in Warsaw, Indiana, was called The Party Shop. Begun in 1978 by Norm and Dorothy Snyder, the shop also became home to the Hallmark Ornament Museum. The 12,000-square-foot Hallmark Gold Crown store became a destination for many ornament collectors. The ornaments were displayed in oak cabinets with glass fronts. Admission was free. The family decided to retire this year and sell the collection.

“It was very cool to go see the ornaments,” Miller said. “We realized the interest and the emotional connection that these ornaments had for many people. Fortunately, we were able to acquire them. It’s exciting to see this preview group of ornaments on exhibit.”

Christmas Cookies a favorite

One of Miller’s favorite Hallmark ornaments is called Christmas Cookies, released in 2004. The ornament is a miniature stove with a baking sheet of cookies sitting on top. It’s a great example of the special effects Hallmark created with ornaments, she said. The ornament plugs into the light string on the tree and the oven lights up; it also has a fragrance insert that emits an aroma of cookies baking in the oven. The ornament is part of the current holiday display.

“It’s one of my favorites. It’s a nice, emotional touchstone for many people who have those fond memories of being a child and baking Christmas cookies with their mom or who are currently making those memories,” Miller said. “The artistry of a Hallmark is always very beautiful.”

Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments exhibit

Now through Jan. 5

The Henry Ford, 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn

Outside the General Motors Gallery

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