If you were born in the first half of the Boomer Generation, chances are you remember your family or someone you knew having an aluminum Christmas tree. These shimmering beacons of 1950s and ’60s modernism helped define what contemporary suburban style was all about.
Artificial trees weren’t new to the Boomer Generation. Artificial trees became popular in Germany at the turn of the century as a response to the growing deforestation problems of the era. The “trees” were composed of wooden or metal “branches” covered with goose feathers. Well into the 1920s, department stores in the U.S., having long since adopted the Christmas tree tradition from Germany, were selling artificial trees made from feathers, leather strips and bristles.
The first aluminum trees sold in the U.S. were made by the Modern Coatings company of Chicago around 1955. The trees sold fairly well in the Chicago area and in some adjoining states. A few years later the product came to the attention of people at Aluminum Specialty company in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The company produced pots and pans and other aluminum products, and thought they were in a position to “build a better mousetrap” when it came to manufacturing and marketing aluminum trees. The company acquired the rights to manufacture the trees and began production in 1959. For the next ten years, Aluminum Specialty was the number one manufacturer of aluminum trees in the world.
Aluminum trees were not considered artificial trees, in that they were abstract interpretations that were never intended to look like a real tree, but rather a system of reflecting color across the clean lines of post-modernist rooms. For that reason the majority of aluminum trees were silver, though other colors were sold: gold, green and pink, specifically. Since electric lights on a metal tree posed a hazard, color was added via an electric color wheel, which was sold as part of the complete product package. Most trees were displayed with only a few ornaments, which were often all the same color. As a contrast to the metallic tree color, the ball colors were most often red or blue. When the color wheel was set next to the tree and turned on, a rotating wheel of color gels splashed light onto the aluminum branches. Due to an innovation from Aluminum Specialty engineers that flared and curled the ends of each of the “needles,” the light was reflected off the tree, like facets in a gem, across a room. For suburban houses equipped with big picture windows, the trees could put on quite a holiday show from the street.
The trees reached the height of popularity between 1960 and ’65. Then the sudden drop in sales experienced by aluminum tree retailers has been directly attributed to the 1965 TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. In the Peanuts cartoon, Snoopy has “gone commercial,” hosting a lighting contest and electrifying his dog house environs. This depresses Charlie Brown, who visits Lucy’s psychiatrist booth. She suggests he direct the school Nativity play to feel more a part of the season. When Charlie Brown decides a Christmas tree will set the proper mood for the play, Lucy suggests a “big, shiny aluminum tree.” Thus the aluminum tree was used as a symbol of secularism and commercialism. As a result, Charlie Brown bought a scrawny “real” tree instead. The viewing public took the sentiment to heart and aluminum trees — and their color wheels — fell out of favor. Plastic trees that were designed to mimic the styles of real fir trees began to replace the aluminum ones from the mid-1960s and into the ’70s.
Mister Boomer’s family did not have an aluminum tree, or other artificial tree. Trudging out in the snow and cold from lot to lot to find the “perfect” real tree was a family tradition for the males. Shivering and tired, the Boomer boys watched their father tie the chosen tree to the car roof with sisal rope for the drive home. There, he would carry the tree to the back yard and, with his branch saw, cut an inch or so from the bottom of the tree’s trunk. He then carried the tree to the basement and set it in a metal bucket of water, allowing the tree to acclimate to indoor temperatures in the cooler basement overnight. The next day the tree was brought upstairs and set up, ready for decorating.
Mister Boomer remembers a house on a neighboring block that had an aluminum tree. On various nights during the holiday season, he walked over with his neighborhood friends and stood on the freshly-shoveled sidewalk in front of the house. A color wheel flashed across the aluminum tree that was positioned on the right corner of the living room picture widow. It was mesmerizing to Mister B, watching the entire room light up deep blue, then a golden yellow, crimson red and shimmering green. The boys watched as the wheel went through several cycles, hypnotized by the color spectacle emanating from inside the house and across the snow on the front yard.
As with many things associated with our Boomer youth, aluminum trees have made a comeback as a kitschy reminder of days gone by. Rare trees from the 1960s — especially pink ones — are fetching anywhere from a few dollars to thousands of dollars online. New versions of the old trees are being manufactured to satisfy the freshly-acquired nostalgia by a generation that didn’t grow up with aluminum trees at all.
As the Boomer Generation grew along with the hopes and dreams of our post-War parents, the aluminum tree stands as a symbol of the modern world they envisioned for their children and children’s children: a world of technology and wonderment that would inspire a world where the holiday message of “peace on earth” had been a goal worth fighting for.
What memories of aluminum Christmas trees do you have, boomers?