Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Tree Cut Down By a Cartoon

Closeup of red and gold ornaments on a silver aluminum tree.
If you think politics are polarizing, try asking a group of people how they feel about aluminum Christmas trees. Whether you like their kitsch factor or find them an abomination, there is no denying that their shimmering sheen is a sight to behold. Aesthetics aside, their place in American culture and their ultimate demise are as interesting as the reflective light patterns they create.

To explain the aluminum tree phenomenon, it is important to look back at where we were in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This was a time of prosperity for most Americans and a time when people were actively looking to the future with enthusiasm. The possibilities must have seemed endlessly golden for the adults at that time. These were people who had made it through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War, and they were ready for something new to look forward to. Combine that attitude with the economic security of well-paying jobs and emerging technologies from the space program, and the market for gadgets and gimmicks was well set. The American people were excited about the prospect of space exploration and wanted to be a part of this new world in some small way. So, they bought Tang and Teflon pans and Christmas trees that looked like something the Jetsons would have. 

Reproduction of an ad for Evergleam trees from Aluminum Specialty Products.
Cultural shifts often have humble beginnings (Microsoft began in a garage, after all), and for the aluminum tree we all think of, the beginning was in the small city of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. For any number of reasons, Manitowoc had been a center of aluminum production since the late 1800s. The factories there provided good incomes for thousands of residents, and by mid-century, there were many new aluminum products on the market to keep them busy. Then, in late 1958, an employee of Aluminum Specialty Company in Manitowoc saw an aluminum tree that another company had created. But that tree was expensive and hard to assemble, so it wasn’t selling. Seeing an opportunity, the dedicated employee took the tree to the engineers at Aluminum Specialty. Within a few months, they had designed an affordable, portable tree that was easy to assemble. By Christmas 1959, the Evergleam model was rolling out and selling big. The innovative employee’s name has been lost to time, but hopefully, he was rewarded handsomely for his vision.

Young woman sitting by an aluminum tree with lots of presents and a color wheel under it.
Aluminum trees quickly caught the collective imagination and they catapulted into mainstream Christmas. But, a hiccup soon developed – it was downright dangerous to put lights on them. Aluminum is an excellent conductor of electricity, so all it takes is a faulty wire or bulb to charge the tree. Fires, shocks, and even electrocution can result. The solution was the now-iconic color wheel that projects color onto the tree; it was introduced in 1962. That same year, rotating stands were also unveiled (later models even played music). Different manufacturers and varieties in sizes, colors, and adornments appeared. The tree was a bonafide hit and in the early ‘60s every hip household had one – the future looked shiny for the aluminum tree.

An aluminum tree lying in the middle of a room. There is a television, folding tray tables and two very guilty-looking cats.
If one looks at the decade of the 1960s, the first half has a distinctly different flavor than the second half. What had been a time of optimism quickly became a time of dynamic cultural changes. The complacency of peacetime morphed into the horror of Vietnam. Fun fashions and music evolved into a counterculture that was fraught with drug use and social unrest. Environmental consciousness was awakened and put a shadow on the unrestrained consumerism of earlier years. All of this had an effect on aluminum tree sales, but it was Charlie Brown who dealt the final blow.

In 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas was beamed into living rooms across the country. Charlie Brown (and other characters from Peanuts) had been loved by readers of Sunday comics since the late ’40s, but this was their first primetime special for the whole family. In the show, Lucy wants Charlie to buy a pink aluminum tree, but he chooses – and loves - his now-famous threadbare  but real tree. This was seen by many as an overt protest against crass consumerism and a rallying cry to embrace the real, and flawed, natural world. After the broadcast, aluminum tree sales quickly tapered off and then crashed significantly as Charlie Brown’s Christmas became an annual favorite. Aluminum Specialty Products had remained the leader in aluminum trees; but by 1969, they had ceased production of their glittering Evergleam trees. 

Charlie Brown and Linus are in a field of colorful trees and Linus is asking, "Gee - Do they still make wooden Christmas trees?".
Luckily, at the same time that aluminum trees were popular, cheap cameras and film were also available. This means that there is a delicious trove of photographs showing people by their trees. These images capture that short period of time in all its garish glory. Here, for instance, is a collection of every-one-is-better-than-the-next pictures. Some of these have a strangeness to them that is outright hilarious or definitely creepy. Or something else entirely that I cannot name. Enjoy.

A room with a real Christmas tree to the left rear next to fireplace and an aluminum tree in the right forefront"
As with everything deemed retro, aluminum trees are cool again. This has led to a batch of companies making new trees that look like the old kind, or new trees that are sort of like the old ones. And all the ornaments and accessories as well, of course. For people who aspire for the ambiance that only an aluminum tree provides, this is a great way to go. If, on the other hand, you are one who demands the real deal you had better be willing to pay a premium price. Vintage trees can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars. If you are interested in either a true antique or reproduction, this blog has some useful buying tips and this one has some beautiful decorating ideas.

America may have had a short-lived infatuation with aluminum trees, but they have had a lasting effect on a lot of us. They elicit strong nostalgia in many people - they remember the sparkly trees they had or wished they had. Others associate them with a better time, or possibly of a not-better time that embraced the artificial. Some see them as a little of all that - like this man who retains vivid memories of his family tree. However you see them, they sure are an eyeful.
Take Care.
Submitted by Pam

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