Pennsylvania has an abundance of quaint small towns; many make you feel like you are in a Hallmark Movie when you visit. But there is one small town in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, called “The Town That Saved Christmas.” Wellsboro is a quintessential Christmas village nestled in the Allegheny Mountains along Route 6 and is home to an extraordinary holiday story you may not be aware of.
Let’s take a closer look at how it all began and why Wellsboro, The Town That Saved Christmas, should be on your list for Christmas travel.
Note: The Penn Wells Hotel hosted our visit. All opinions are my own.
A Rich History
Before World War II, most Christmas ornaments were made of blown glass and imported from Germany. During the war, the British blockade of goods from Europe meant the United States would no longer receive the 250 million ornaments imported each year. What would people do? Would their trees have no ornaments? How would they celebrate Christmas?
German immigrant Max Eckardt, who handled the distribution of ornaments to the F.W. Woolworth Company and other stores, knew he had to find a solution to the problem quickly. He needed to find a producer of ornaments on American soil.
He turned to Corning Glass and asked them to help him find a solution. Corning Glass tapped their Wellsboro factory, less than 50 miles from headquarters, to change the light bulbs being produced into glass ornaments called “Shiny Brite.”
Shiny Brite Ornaments
The Wellsboro Corning Glass plant was assigned to retrofit its glass light bulb operations to manufacture Christmas ornaments. The Wellsboro plant already had a high-speed ribbon machine that, once converted, could mass-produce the Shiny Brite ornaments.
The deal not only provided a United States manufacturing base for the ornaments, but Eckardt could also promote ornaments “Made in U.S.A.”
In the first year of operation, Wellsboro’s Corning employees produced over 40 million Shiny Brite ornaments and stocked the shelves in stores all over America. Wellsboro became known as The Town That Saved Christmas.
The Wellsboro factory continued to manufacture the Shiny Brite ornaments for decades. As the years passed, they updated and improved their processes. A gentleman from Wellsboro developed the shrink wrap process, taking images from artwork and photos and printing them on the ornaments.
They started making ornaments in shapes beyond just round balls. They made ornaments for Hallmark and other companies.
Eventually, glass ornaments were replaced by plastic, and demand dropped significantly. The Corning glass plant that created the Shiny Brite ornaments and shaped the town’s industrial legacy closed in 2016 without fanfare.
Two ribbon machines from Wellsboro were found in a closed plant in Kentucky, and in 2020 they were brought back to Wellsboro. Due to size, they are not currently on display. But it is hoped a suitable location will be found so visitors can view a ribbon machine.
Interesting Shiny Brite Facts
- Shiny Brite Ornaments were often sold at Ben Franklin, J.J. Newberry, and Woolworth Stores.
- For 39 years, between 1940 and 1979, Wellsboro manufactured 90 percent of all Christmas ornaments worldwide.
- Shiny Brite Ornament boxes did not list Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, as the address. They list “Made in the U.S.A.” or give the New Jersey address of Max Eckardt’s company. But all Shiny Brite ornaments were made in Wellsboro.
Shiny Brites On Display Throughout The Year
A year-round display of the Shiny Brite Ornaments is located in the Penn Wells Hotel lobby. It is a large American flag created from Shiny Brite Christmas bulbs. The Wellsboro Division of the Corning Glass Works (CGW) created the flag to honor returning World War II veterans in 1946. It appeared in LIFE magazine and eventually was a gift to the Penn Wells Hotel.
Glass Factory Exhibit At The Gmeiner Art And Cultural Center
A Corning Glass Factory Exhibit is on display in December at the Gmeiner Art and Cultural Center. The collection displays pieces from 100 years of history of the Wellsboro Corning Glass Factory, Shiny Brite ornaments, and the community’s heritage.
Wellsboro was the first Corningworks branch expansion, so there is lots of history to showcase.
Learn about Willy Woods, who invented the ribbon machine in Wellsboro that revolutionized glass production going from the two-minute process of hand-blowing a light bulb to making 3,000 lightbulbs per minute.
Wellsboro’s Corning factory was at the forefront of advancements in providing safe, indoor, electric lighting.
Renowned for their productivity and innovations, a few of their creations include radio and television tubes, camera flashbulbs, fluorescent tubes, candle holders, and more.
Holiday Events In Wellsboro
During December, the main streets of Wellsboro are decorated with Christmas trees and wreaths placed on gaslit lamp posts. All that was missing when we visited was a dusting of snow to make it picture-perfect.
Wellsboro hosts two significant events in December on back-to-back weekends: Dickens of a Christmas and Christmas on Main Street.
Dickens Of A Christmas
Wellsboro is best known for its annual Victorian Dickens Of A Christmas celebration, sponsored by the Wellsboro Area Chamber of Commerce. It attracts 30,000+ visitors each year. It is held the first weekend in December.
Main Street becomes an early Victorian marketplace featuring food, drink, entertainment, and gifts to rekindle the old-fashioned Christmas spirit. Community members join together to provide street performances, quartets, choirs, characters, and more to make Dickens of a Christmas special.
Christmas On Main Street Celebration
They hold the Christmas on Main Street event the second weekend of December. The 2022 event was the seventh year for the 5-day Christmas on Main Street celebration, highlighting The Town that Saved Christmas and the century of labor at the Wellsboro plant. The work and stories about the workers were on display.
There were over 30 destinations with Shiny Brite displays for visitors to view. A Historic Ornament Display Passport encouraged everyone to visit the Shiny Brite ornament displays and have a card stamped. Those who visited at least 10 displays and turned their card in were entered into a drawing for gift baskets.
Strolling along the gaslit Main Street, we enjoyed a unique shopping experience during the festive weekend. Horse-drawn wagon rides were available, two reindeer were on hand for photos, and there was a live nativity scene. There were walking tours of the town to learn additional history and excellent eateries to delight the tastebuds.
Behind the Gmeiner Art and Cultural Center, Greg Hoke, whose mom and step-father both worked at the Wellsboro factory, gave glass working demonstrations, making ornaments and jewelry.
Other activities available during Wellsboro’s Christmas on Mainstreet included:
- Santa Brunch
- Craft Show
- Dollar Christmas Movie
- Christmas Concerts & Caroling
- Holiday-Themed Game Night
- Swing Dance Lessons
- Swing Dancing
- Parade of Lights
The highlight for me was seeing all the vintage Shiny Brite holiday ornaments at the various displays throughout Wellsboro.
Where To Stay When You Visit
A great place to stay to experience the historic nostalgia of Wellsboro is the Penn Wells Hotel, located on Main Street. It is within walking distance of all the activities. There is a tavern and a restaurant on-site. During the holidays, the hotel is beautifully decorated and a showcase for the Shiny Brite ornaments, with a flag, a tree decorated in Shiny Brite ornaments, and a large wreath made of Shiny Brite ornaments of different sizes.
If you prefer modern accommodations, the Penn Wells Lodge is right down the street. It boasts an indoor heated pool and hot tub.
Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, with its small-town charm, rich history, picturesque scenery, and unique seasonal festivities, is an ideal destination for the holiday season. Whether you visit The Town That Saved Christmas during one of its holiday events or anytime during the Christmas season, it is sure to boost your holiday spirit.