Bernard Wilmsen (1858-1948) was a German-born American businessman who in the late 1800s published the beautifully intricate and colorful tissue paper "pop-up" style books known as the "Triumph Editions". He also made a significant impact in the United States Christmas decoration industry. He was born on November 10, 1858, in Germany and married Dorothy Schlegel. They had at least three sons and three daughters. Wilmsen passed away on May 21, 1948, in Cheltenham Township, Montgomery, Pennsylvania, at the age of 89.
Wilmsen started his business when he opened a small factory in Philadelphia where he used hand-operated machines manufactured in Germany to produce tinsel. He named his business B. Wilmsen & Co. and became an instant success with his creation. In 1887, he expanded his line by acquiring patent rights from George W. Landenberger, which led to the production of the company's first ornament, a glass ball surrounded by a heart." During the initial years of the enterprise, he relied predominantly on German suppliers for its inventory, importing commodities like metal ornament caps, tinsel, and crepe paper. But gradually, the company started creating its own merchandise and production methods, such as the implementation of honeycomb paper, which eventually became one of the company's signature materials.
One of the most significant moments in Wilmsen's career was in the Fall of 1880 when he caught the attention of F.W. Woolworth, Before Woolworth entered the picture, Wilmsen was turning imported German gold tinsel into garlands by hand. Wilmsen visited as a traveling salesman. At first, Frank had doubts about how well the decorations would be received by American consumers, as they didn't have a practical purpose. As a result, he initially purchased only a single case of nearly 150 ornaments on a "sale or return" basis. However, the ornaments sold out quickly, generating a nice profit, which made him realize that he had stumbled upon a successful concept. Woolworth recognized the potential of these garlands as Christmas decorations and offered to buy every single one in the factory, along with some simple hand-painted American tree ornaments. Wilmsen initially refused, stating that he only dealt with jobbers and that the decorations were already promised to someone else. However, Woolworth persisted, and eventually, Wilmsen agreed to sell to him. Woolworth promised to keep buying from Wilmsen for life, and he kept his word. This partnership helped to grow Wilmsen's business significantly. The company also distributed its products through various channels, such as other department stores, dime stores, and mail-order catalogs. Along with Christmas decorations and ornaments, the company also manufactured products for other holidays, such as Halloween and Easter.
To maximize his advantage, Frank Woolworth concentrated most of his orders with Wilmsen as a sole supplier. The estimated total sales of individual baubles between 1880 and 1939 were staggering, exceeding five hundred million! At the age of 81, in 1939, Mr. Wilmsen reminisced about his initial encounter with Frank in the early 1880s, stating: " Mr Woolworth had at that time only a few stores. But I grew with Woolworth. I have sold them at least $25,000,000 worth of Christmas tree ornaments, in one year $800,000 worth. At first we imported tinsel from Germany. Since the war I make it myself. To-day, at the corner of Haegert and Jasper Streets I have a big factory. I have 255 people working to fill Woolworth orders. We sell to all, but Woolworth was the first. I am the oldest Woolworth supplier."
One of Wilmsen's innovations in the Christmas decoration industry was patenting a series of realistically shaped, foil-covered ornaments, such as bells in 1917, tinsel-trimmed balls in 1933, and cone-icicles in 1936. Wilmsen's elegant silver tinsel product was also widely used, but B.W. Fox, Wilmsen's grandson, introduced a plastic, metallic tinsel product that is still used today.
While Wilmsen is primarily known for his work in the Christmas decoration industry, he was also involved in other ventures. He had a tissue paper and honeycomb business, which he believed was essential and necessary to continue operating alongside his Christmas decoration business. In 1887, Wilmsen acquired patent rights from George W. Landenberger, which allowed him to expand his line of products to produce the company's first ornament. He continued to capitalize on the popularity of decorated Christmas trees, introducing new products such as realistically shaped, foil-covered bells in 1917, foil-covered, tinsel-trimmed balls in 1933, and foil-covered cone-icicles in 1936.
Apart from Christmas decorations, Wilmsen also held patents related to paper products. He patented his honeycomb ornament on February 8, 1898. This unique glass ornament featured a circular or teardrop shape and contained folded tissue paper inside that formed a distinctive honeycomb pattern. He later patented a process for manufacturing honeycomb tissue paper in 1916, which was used to make party decorations such as honeycomb balls and bells. Prior to that, he had copyrighted the Triumph Edition Honeycomb Pop-up Style Books, which were interactive children's books featuring three-dimensional honeycomb pop-up illustrations.
In fact, in a legal complaint he filed, In 1912, stating that without adequate protection, the tissue paper and honeycomb business could not have been begun or developed, let alone maintained. (see full reference below). It is interesting to note that the use of the term "Triumph Edition" on his pop-up style books was also a term used by Wilmsen and other ornament manufacturers to denote a higher quality or premium version of their ornaments.
Bernard Wilmsen was a visionary businessman who helped shape the Christmas decoration industry. His partnership with F.W. Woolworth, his patenting of new and innovative products, and his involvement in other ventures made him a significant figure in the American business world. Even today, his impact can be felt in the widespread use of plastic, metallic tinsel, and other Christmas decorations that he helped to popularize.
The company went through several name changes over the years, but the core business remained the same: manufacturing holiday decorations and other paper products. B. Wilmsen Manufacturing Company continued under the management of his Grandson, B.W. Fox, and son, Joseph Louis Wilmsen, after Wilmsen's death in 1948. As plastic and other materials became more widely used for holiday decorations, the company faced increasing competition from other manufacturers, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s. Eventually, due to the changing consumer preferences and the intensifying competition, the company was sold in the 1960s and subsequently ceased operations in the 1970s.
References and Extra Information:
Reference: Testimony given by Bernard Wilmsen to the United States Senate Committee on Finance in 1912.
REPRESENTATIONS OF BERNARD WILMSEN ON BEHALF OF HIMSELF AND OTHERS REGARDING THE AMENDMENT OF PARAGRAPH NO. 179
"Bernard Wilmsen, residing at No. 212 Ionic Street in Philadelphia, PA, presented representations on behalf of himself and others regarding the amendment of paragraph no. 179. Wilmsen, who founded the new industry of Christmas ornaments in the country, expressed his concern about the industry's future without adequate protection. For a long time, the business was conducted at a loss, and its growth was made possible by conducting it in connection with the more established business of ornamented cards and tissue-paper novelties.
According to Wilmsen, the foreign article of Christmas ornaments is made almost exclusively in Thuringia, Germany, near the towns of Sonneberg and Lauseha. It is entirely a product of home labor, made by families of peasants who work in a single room of their homes and receive wages of from 20 to 35 cents per day. On the other hand, wages paid by the American industry for labor in modern sanitary factories are four or five times as high. Wilmsen believed that without adequate protection, the American industry could not have been begun or developed, and without such protection, it could not be maintained today.
Wilmsen urged the committee to consider the American product's price, which he believed was produced at a figure under which, and then only in very recent years, a small margin of profit is shown. He also invited the committee to inspect his product and consider the American price, which he was sure they would be amazed at the cheapness of the American product. Overall, Wilmsen's representations highlighted the importance of protecting the American industry of Christmas ornaments and providing it with the necessary support to thrive and grow."
Pennsylvania Heritage magazine -Pennsylvania’s Gift: The Decorated Tree
Written by Nada Gray in the Features category and the Winter 1985 issue
"Immigrants, Ornaments and Legacies: A Story of American Made Glass Christmas Tree Ornaments" by Jody L. Pritzl
"The Christmas Tree Book: The History of the Christmas Tree and Antique Christmas Tree Ornaments by Phillip V. Snyder (1977)
Margaret and Kenn Whitmyer, Christmas Collectibles, 2nd ed. (Paducah, Ky.: Collector Books, 1994)
The Fun of Honeycomb By Susan Brown Nicholson Jul 23, 2018
WOOLWORTHS: HAVE A CRACKING CHRISTMAS! DECEMBER 10, 2018
PDF of Patent: chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/30/ae/d6/65cc6b1d43c020/US753781.pdf