Christmas Ornaments from the Rodriguez-Hopcroft Trashpit in Santa Cruz
Senior State Archaeologist
During archaeological investigations behind the Santa Cruz Mission Adobe in Santa Cruz California, a trash pit dating to the 1930s was found. Of particular note were a number of glass Christmas lights. These lights were made in Japan in the period between the two World Wars. The trashpit from which they came seems to date to the mid 1930s. About this time, the owner of the property, Roman Rodriguez, died (1936) and his adopted daughter, Cornelia Hopcroft, came to live in the house. It is believed that the items thrown away at this time were from the late Ramon Rodriguez’ belongings.
In his book on Christmas ornaments, Phillip Snyder (1976:122-123), the fascinating historical background of these ornaments is laid out. The first major production of this type of hand-painted milk glass lights was done in Austria by the Kremenetzky Electric Company in Vienna. However, once the United States had entered WWI, trade with Austria stopped. An importer named Louis Szel traveled to Japan about this time and made arrangements for production of these ornaments by local glassblowers. Since glass-blowing in Japan was at an earlier stage of development than the fine quality in Austria, the products were more crudely made. Whereas the Austrian glass was transparent before painting, the Japanese product was generally a translucent white milk glass. Snyder noted that "even Santa Claus bore a distinct resemblance to Buddha."
A sad note in the production of these ornaments is that the glass was mostly blown by Japanese boys from age eight to fourteen. Due to the high lead content in the glass used by the Japanese, blowing these ornaments for up to fourteen hours a day exposed the childrens’ lungs to a heavy concentration of lead and many became tubercular and died.
Once the ornaments had been formed and their electrical filaments installed, they had to be hand painted. For all this exhausting, detailed work the children normally received about 50 sen per day (about 25 cents American at the time).
The Japanese Christmas-lamp industry improved over time and it largely dominated the American market in the 1920s and 30s. During this time small companies took over from the cottage industries and developed more efficient methods of production. This lasted until 1941 when the entry of the United States and Japan into a state of war terminated the trade.
The Christmas lamps found in a Rodriguez family trash pit behind the Santa Cruz Mission Adobe hearken back to the early days of decorative Christmas lights. Such lights are rarely found in an archaeological context and so this discovery lends us additional insight into a Christmas at the home of Roman Rodriguez in the 1920s-30s.