Aluminum Christmas Trees

 

 

Well, you either love 'em or you hate 'em! There seems to be no in-between for those icons of the 1960s- the wonderfully glitzy aluminum Christmas trees! Here's the lowdown on these trees that so many people love to hate...

 

December, 1958: Aluminum Specialty Company toy sales manager Tom Gannon had noticed a small, homemade all metal tree used as a display in a Ben Franklin Five and Dime store in Chicago, Illinois. He thought it was a wonderful idea, and presented it to his company in Manitowoc, Wisconsin right away. At the time, Manitowoc was known as the Aluminum Cookware Capital of the World, and  the company president thought that Tom's idea was a splendid one. The design department sprang into action, and by Christmas of 1959, they offered the very first all-aluminum Christmas tree to a somewhat confused public. After a surprisingly busy first year of sales, the idea really took off, and by 1960 The Aluminum Specialty company had perfected their flagship tree: The Evergleam. Although the company records and archives have long since been lost, several estimates put the factory output at four million trees during their 10 year production time from 1959 to 1969.

The company never advertised their tree as artificial, but rather insisted that their offering was simply a "Permanent Tree". It had a sliver painted wooden trunk with a multitude of holes drilled in it at increasing angles, so that when each of the hand made branches of the same size was inserted into them, they would perch upwards, forming the traditional tree shape. Equipped with a simple aluminum tripod style stand, the trees were easy to set up and certainly caught one's eye.

Website visitor Anna Bates shares this picture and memories of her mother with us. Referring to their first aluminum Christmas tree, Anna writes: "I still remember when Mom brought that thing home in a big cardboard box.  Permanent tree!  When she pulled out that painted silver pole, we laughed so hard we cried.  Later that night we all stood in the living room for the ritual of turning on the color wheel for the first time.  We stood there in amazement watching the tree turn red, yellow --- then when blue came around a hushed "oooooooh" from all of us.  She was so proud of that thing.  In this picture, she is sitting next to her tree, wearing a matching aluminum corsage, strappy sandals, huge rhinestone earrings to accentuate her dyed red hair.  I loved her so much.  And to think I thought all that stuff was tacky when I was a teenager! Her name was Nora Bates, and she died from complications of Alzheimer's disease in April 2003.

As is almost always true with a successful product, imitators soon jumped on the bandwagon, and the market was flooded with a huge variety of aluminum wonders, not only in the original silver color, but now in gold, green, blue, a blue and green combination, a silver with blue tips and even pink! Due to the extreme danger of using electric lights on the highly-conductive aluminum branches, rotating multicolored floodlights, called color wheels, were sold to illuminate the trees. (CLICK HERE for the Color Wheels page of this website.) Trees were offered for sale by most of the major Christmas lighting companies, including NOMA, Paramount and TIMCO. The heights of the silvery wonders ranged for a tiny one foot table top tree up to a 7 foot monster. there were even half trees produced for wall mounting in offices and stores. the variety was seemingly endless. Along with The Aluminum Specialty Company, other companies offered the glittery wonders, including Star Brand Company in Portsmouth, Virginia, Regal Electronics in Chicago, Illinois, And Fairyland Trees.

But, almost as quickly as their popularity soared, public interest in the trees started to fade.  They would soon be declared a symbol of the crass commercialism of Christmas, and when, in December of 1965, the first airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas appeared on CBS, the buying public seemed to take to heart the refusal of Charlie Brown to buy as his symbol of the Yuletide season "the biggest aluminum tree he could find, maybe even painted pink". By 1968, most companies no longer listed them in their catalogs. Today, collectors will pay a high price for some of the less common trees, especially in the colors other than silver. The average selling price for a vintage silver-colored aluminum tree in good condition is about $15 per foot of height. Expect to pay a premium price for a pink tree, the rarest of all of the colors offered. Trees of any color that are especially full, or have the pom-pom branch ends will also command a premium price. Last year (December, 2000) reproduction trees appeared on the market, and were surprisingly good sellers. Expect to see more of them offered in future years.

Here is the patent drawing for the first aluminum Christmas tree (click on the thumbnail to enlarge). You can easily see how simple the tree was to manufacture, with the only difficulty coming when it was time to "fluff" the needles on the branches. Factory workers, most of the time female part timers, were employed as "fluffers," each of them spreading out the aluminum needles branch by branch with a leather gloved hand. They became quite adept at their jobs, with most workers able to prepare 1000 branches each during their shift. The company ran three shifts with 10 women on the line. The ladies would first glue a "shredded" aluminum strip to a wire branch, and then wind it around to cover the wire completely. Once the strip was completely covering the branch. the needles would be fluffed out.

Each of the fluffed branches was then inserted into an individual cardboard sleeve for packing. Typical trees had all branches the same size-it was the angle of the holes drilled onto the trunk that actually "shaped" the tree. Even the topmost branch, which was stuck into a hole on the flat surface on the top of the trunk, was the same size as all of the others. All of the branches were identical, so assembly for the consumer was a breeze.

To the right is a picture of a fancy "Pom-Pom" type of branch, a feature exclusive to the more costly trees. The ends of each branch were flared out, giving the tree an extra high level of sparkle and glamour. The pom-poms have suffered over the years in storage, as keeping them compressed for eleven months of each year had a tendency to compress them, and the yearly re-fluffing soon resulted in detached needles. Trees surviving today with their pom-poms intact are a collector's dream.

 

On the next page, you'll be able to see photographs of a few of the trees sold from 1959 to 1968...

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