The forgotten scientist who made modern Christmas ornaments possible

Have been it not for Baron Justus von Liebig, Christmas would possibly look and style fairly completely different. But, regardless of his contribution to all the pieces from the inventory cubes utilized in your gravy to the mirrors in your home, it’s unlikely you may have heard of him.

Justus von Liebig (1803-1873), chemist. Oil portray by Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Adolph Trautschold, 1845. [Image: Wellcome Collection]

The German chemist’s pursuits additionally stretched to human diet. He turned satisfied the juices that flowed out of cooked meat contained useful dietary compounds and inspired cooks to sear the meat to seal within the juices. This turned out to be complete bunkum, however 150 years later his recommendation continues to be adopted by Christmas dinner cooks throughout the land. For a lot of the Nineteenth century Liebig was a large of the scientific institution, with fingers in lots of pies. He labored out the core dietary wants of vegetation after which went on to develop the primary fertilizer—for which he’s identified in scientific circles because the “father of fertilization.” This work eliminated the dependency on animal dung to feed crops and paved the best way for industrial agriculture—together with piles of Brussels sprouts.

The obsession with meat juices additionally led him to create beef extracts in an try to offer a nutritious meat substitute. The extract turned out to be a relatively poor, and never significantly nutritious, various to meat—however the Liebig Extract of Meat Firm did morph into Oxo, whose inventory cubes discover their manner into so many Christmas gravies.

Mirrors and baubles

But Liebig’s most seen contribution to Christmas could be hanging in your Christmas tree. Christmas timber have their roots way back to the Roman saturnalian celebration of the winter solstice—a spiritual pageant involving consuming, singing, and an change of items, devoted to the Roman god Saturn. Later, most likely someday within the sixteenth century, embellished timber have been introduced into houses, and this German concept was then popularized by Queen Victoria within the mid-Nineteenth Century.


A few of the first reported glass decorations for timber, courting again to the sixteenth century, have been garlands of beads produced by the Greiner family in Lauscha, Germany. Some 250 years later, the household have been nonetheless making ornaments, and Hans Greiner turned well-known for his ornate glass nuts and fruits, embellished with mirrored inside surfaces.

On the time, mirrors have been prohibitively costly for many and have been made by adhering a skinny tin movie to glass utilizing mercury. The course of was extraordinarily hazardous because it generated extremely poisonous mercury vapor, which may additionally leach off the mirror for many years to return. In reality, vintage mercury mirrors could also be recognized by droplets of mercury pooling at their base.

At kind of the identical time as Hans Greiner was creating his baubles, Liebig was creating a lot safer methods to silver glassware to be used in his laboratories. His technique utilized silver nitrate, ammonia, and easy sugars. And it resulted in a fabulously uniform, crystal-clear movie of silver metallic deposited on the glass. This was quickly tailored to be used in different areas of science, together with telescope mirrors, and shortly Greiner caught wind of the event and included it into his ornaments. Ultimately the method additionally led to mass-produced mirrors, which have been low cost sufficient to make them commonplace.

Shortly after Liebig developed his silvering technique, the method was tweaked by one other German chemist, Bernhard Tollens, who turned the method into an analytical method for figuring out specific chemical teams called aldehydes. Tollens’ method has the relatively lovely facet impact of shortly silvering the vessel it’s carried in. Seeing a mirrored floor form in your hands is an actual delight, making it a favourite of chemistry classes the world over.

Mark Lorch is a professor of science communication and chemistry on the University of Hull. This text is republished from The Conversation below a Inventive Commons license. Learn the original article.