Tate Williams

The Short Life—and Awesome Resurgence—of the Aluminum Christmas Tree

Tate Williams January 4, 2015
aluminum_christmas_tree4

Originally published on Mental_Floss, Dec. 24, 2014.

For a short window in the 1960s, aluminum Christmas trees gleamed in living rooms nationwide—but this glorious, glittering reign would be all too brief. Within the decade, they were relegated to the curb as aesthetic tastes shifted. But nostalgia has fueled an aluminum tree renaissance in recent years. Here’s a brief history.

WHERE IT ALL BEGAN

The craze started in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, in 1959. As with all grand advances in civilization, the credit goes to those who made them commercially viable—and the Ford of the aluminum tree was the Aluminum Specialty Company, based in the small, blue-collar city on Lake Michigan.

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, Tom Gannon, toy sales manager for the Aluminum Specialty Company, saw a metal tree in a store window during a visit to Chicago in 1958. Modern Coatings, Inc., had a patent on them, but its version was expensive and bulky. Gannon brought the idea back to his engineers, who made the trees cheaper—the price went from $75 to $85 down to $25—as well as easier to mass produce and easier to put up and break down. Aluminum Specialty took a gamble and produced hundreds of thousands for the following Christmas, eventually branding it the “Evergleam.”

Soon after, several aluminum manufacturers found themselves in the Christmas business, and the trees were everywhere, ranging from tabletop models to eight feet tall; silver was popular, but they came in a variety of colors. Trees were paired with spotlights and color wheels that made them twinkle in rotating hues. In one popular variation, the needles erupted into a kind of pompom at the tip of each rigid branch, like shooting stars.

And then came Charlie Brown, and he ruined everything.

HOW CHARLIE BROWN KILLED THE ALUMINUM CHRISTMAS TREE

“Rec Room Christmas” from from the book “Season’s Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree” © J. Shimon & J. Lindemann 2004

It might sound strange, but 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas has been partially blamed for the decline of the aluminum tree. As you may recall, when Charlie Brown is going to buy a tree, Lucy tells him to “get the biggest aluminum tree you can find Charlie Brown. Maybe paint it pink!” Grappling with holiday depression, Linus and Charlie Brown mock the aluminum trees and go with the small natural tree instead.

The aluminum tree had become a symbol of everything that had gone wrong with Christmas. Sales tapered off, and then, by the 1970s, they were gone. And yet…

THE SILVER TREE RESURGENCE

In the last 10 years or so, aluminum trees have reemerged. Popping up at estate sales and thrift stores, they’ve developed an enthusiastic following. Much of the renewed interest was sparked by Wisconsin artists John Shimon and Julie Lindemann, who both grew up near Manitowoc, and in 2004 published the photography book Season’s Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree, showcasing the trees’ history and their own collection.

Aluminum Christmas trees are now collectors’ items, holiday trophies for modernist design enthusiasts. They sell on eBay for hundreds of dollars, with a rare pink model once going for more than $3600. There’s definitely a kitsch appeal. But while they were once seen as a cold threat to the true spirit of Christmas, for a lot of people, they’ve become ageless symbols of holiday Americana.

“Fifty, sixty years on, the Evergleam is now a warm, nostalgic memory, fondly recalled,” said Joe Kapler, a historian who curates a recurring exhibit on the trees at the Wisconsin Historical Museum. “It’s funny how that works out.”

Cover photo Wikimedia Commons.

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