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Hallmark's journey: Keepsake ornaments have permanent home at The Henry Ford

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Just in time for the holidays, The Henry Ford recently unveiled its newest permanent exhibit: the largest collection of Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments on public display.

“Miniature Moments — A Journey through Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments” showcases nearly 7,000 ornaments from over four decades. The ornaments range from simple balls and yarn figures to more intricate, detailed figural ornaments that highlight holiday celebrations, pop-culture moments and special milestones. The exhibit opened to the public on Sunday.

“It’s amazing to walk in there and see thousands of beautifully displayed ornaments,” says Jeanine Head Miller, curator of domestic life for The Henry Ford. “It’s almost like looking through a lens of American life and seeing the changes over the decades. What is especially interesting is the development of figural ornaments, which have been around for some time, but Hallmark takes them to a whole new level with more details and picks up on our cultural and lifestyle trends and the changes over the years.”

A 1970 Hallmark Christmas ornament from the Henry Ford collection.

Hallmark introduced its first collection of Keepsake Ornaments nearly 50 years ago, with a small line of six traditional glass ball ornaments with images (one with a manger scene and another with elves, for example) and 12 yarn figures — including an elf, an angel and a boy caroler — all of them on display in the gallery at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

Dating from 1973 to 2009, The Henry Ford’s collection includes Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Collectors Club, miniatures and lighted ornaments. All of the ornaments are on display in specially-built 12-foot-tall glass cases in a nearly 2,000-square-foot gallery. The ornaments are arranged in a timeline, beginning in 1973 and continuing through 2009.

Miniature Moments -- A Journey through Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments features nearly 7,000 ornaments.

Highlights include figural ornaments like “Kermit and Miss Piggy: On Frozen Pond,” from 2003 and “The PEANUTS Gang Series: The Sunday Funnies,” with Charlie Brown and Sally reading the Sunday comics, from 2007. Among the more intricate ornaments is “Letters to Santa,” created in 2006. That ornament — Santa sitting at his desk, reading a letter and surrounded by toys — includes eight recordings of children reading their letters to Santa. Pull a bell below the ornament and a letter is read and the toys spring to life.

One of curator 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 says. 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.

“It takes me back to my childhood making Christmas cookies with my mom and sister,” Miller says.

This Hallmark Keepsake Ornament dates back to 1976. It will be on display at The Henry Ford.

At eye level in each case a theme, such as literature, movies, classic cars and trucks or exercise, is highlighted, providing visitors with some insight into those particular ornaments. Regarding classic cars, for instance, it was enthusiasts on Hallmark’s staff that convinced the company’s “doubtful” marketing department that a classic car series would be a hit. Introduced in 1991, they were a hit, especially with male customers.

The Henry Ford acquired its collection of ornaments from a family-owned Hallmark Gold Crown store in Warsaw, Indiana, in 2019. The 12,000-square-foot store included the Hallmark Ornament Museum, where the ornaments were displayed in oak cabinets with glass fronts. The owners, in business since 1978, were retiring and wanted to sell the collection.

The Henry Ford learned about the family’s collection through a contact and Miller and a colleague paid a visit to the Indiana store. “We realized the interest and the emotional connection that these ornaments had for many people,” she says.

The Henry Ford initially displayed about 100 ornaments in the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovations that first season, adding a few more each year until the opening of the permanent exhibit.

It’s Hallmark’s legacy as an innovator and entrepreneur that resonated with the Dearborn institution — they are themes of its vast collection.

Hallmark revolutionized Christmas ornaments with the use of unique materials and technology, including sounds, light, and special effects. The company has also uniquely translated pop culture design trends and made the connection to individual interests.

“There were a lot of marketing innovations,” Miller says. “That included developing such a wide variety of ornaments that are geared to distinct customer bases and customer interests. They aligned with the brand’s mission, creating ornaments that helped reinforce family memories and traditions … The company also sparked the phenomena of ornament collecting.”

Dorothy and Glinda, the Good Witch Hallmark Keepsake Ornament

Many consumers view the ornaments as more than just a holiday decoration, but a chance to relive special memories and remember special people and events. 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.

Hallmark was founded by teenage entrepreneur J.C. Hall in 1910. At a young age, he opened a postcard company in a small town in Nebraska. With limited opportunities, he crammed two shoeboxes full of postcards and boarded a train for Kansas City, Missouri, where he and his brother opened a stationery store. When a fire wiped out the store’s inventory, the brothers bought an engraving firm, setting the stage for the first Hallmark card designs.

The Hallmark Keepsake Collection's Dr. Seuss: The Grinch's Christmas Glass Ornament will be on display at The Henry Ford.

While there are impressive private collections of Hallmark ornaments, The Henry Ford’s is believed to be the largest public collection, according to Hallmark. Since 1973, Hallmark has introduced more than 8,400 different Keepsake Ornaments and more than 100 ornament series, annual releases of ornaments that share a specific theme, says Eva Gregory, a company spokesperson.

“I hope that everyone enjoys a stroll through the decades represented in this exhibit,” Miller says. “I hope they notice how everyday ornaments can reflect social history and cultural trends… It’s really a trip down Memory Lane. I hope people see themselves in this exhibit, whether they personally owned the ornaments or see their own interests played out.”

Miniature Moments — A Journey through Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments

The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation

20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn

(313) 982-6001

Admission: $27 for ages 12 and up