Shimmering Nostalgia: The Aluminum Christmas Tree
The aluminum Christmas tree makes a comeback as the cool yule centerpiece that's a natural in the modern home
They shimmer and spin. They entice and satisfy. And these days, after years of near extinction, aluminum Christmas trees are back in the limelight, beloved by mid-century modern aficionados as the ultimate in holiday décor.
Once derisively called 'tin Tannenbaums,' aluminum Christmas trees provoked or infuriated many people when they first hit the market in 1959—but entranced so many others.
Jerry Waak, a sales manager for the Aluminum Specialty Company, the outfit that first mass-produced the silver-needled tinsel trees, recalls typical reactions. "People would laugh," recalls Waak. "Some people would say, 'You're kidding!' A lot of people said they would never sell. Some people would just about throw you out of their store."
But that wasn't what young Bill Yaryan thought about the aluminum tree his parents set up in their furniture store in the early 1960s. He'd sit on the floor and watch the silver tree rotate on its stand while the color wheel revolved as well in a kind of crazy dance.
"When the color wheel and tree were rotating, the effect was so wonderful and so totally artificial," says Yaryan, who lives in a modern Alexander home in the San Fernando Valley. "Tree, 'snow,' and ornaments would change in blazing unison to red, green, and blue, as the tree and wheel spun endlessly. It was completely unhinged from any other Christmas decorations in use then. Its space-age novelty was great."
Over the past few years, aluminum trees have made a comeback, and nowhere more so than in mid-century modern homes, where they just seem so—at home. What could be more eye-on-the-future, after all, or—dare we say it?—greener, than an aluminum Christmas tree?
"Aluminum," Gary Gand observes, "was the material that was going to save the earth back in the '50s. When we were kids, aluminum foil was just the greatest stuff. And aluminum cars."
"They are one of the great icons of the time," says Gand, who lives in an Alexander tract home in Palm Springs and in a Keck-and-Keck modernist home near Chicago, "like the boomerang, the Formica kitchen table top, and the TV dinner."
Unlike 'real' trees—but really, how is wood any 'realer' than aluminum?—the aluminum sort never drop their needles. "All the kitsch but no sticky pitch," is how Scot Nicholls, who lives in a San Jose Eichler, puts it. "There's no mess involved. Christmas goes up—and Christmas goes down and into a box, and it's gone. It's pretty easy."
And Gand, who insists against some evidence to the contrary that mid-century modern homes "are incredible green-friendly" thanks to passive solar design and compact plans, says that aluminum trees complete the environmentally friendly package.
"There's some astronomical number of Christmas trees that get thrown out every year. It's like 100 million trees every year. But people don't pay attention to it—because it's Christmas," he says. "The beauty of the aluminum tree, if you're a green person, it's the same tree over and over again for 50 years."
"The aluminum tree seemed to symbolize a new birth in technology, a better, more rational way of living," Julie Lindemann and John Shimon wrote in 'Season's Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree' (Melcher Media, 2004), their book that ignited the aluminum tree craze. They concluded: "The modernist Christmas had arrived."
Dave Peterson, who owns a San Jose Eichler home, sensed the modernist appeal of aluminum trees even when he was a boy living in his parents' 1870s Victorian home in Wisconsin—not far, coincidentally, from Manitowoc, where Aluminum Specialty manufactured its trees. Peterson's mother filled their home with precious antiques, and their Christmas was highly traditional.
But young Dave coveted his neighbor's Christmas. "The lady across the street from us had an aluminum tree in her picture window, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever."
"It's the rotating lights along with the chrome," he says. "Think about Cadillac bumpers—the chrome '50s."
But if 1950s modernism was all about rational planning and efficiency, then the aluminum tree transcends its genre—just as that other icon of the '50s, the flying saucer, transcends the U-2, not to mention anything flown by Pan Am. Lindemann and Shimon, who began their foray into aluminum mania by collecting as many Aluminum Specialty trees as they could find and arraying them, forest-like, in their art studio, picked up on this early.
"As we looked more and more closely at the trees in our studio," they wrote, "we became increasingly aware of their psychic presence. We wondered if their antenna-like forms attracted some kind of unknown magnetic energy and absorbed the vibrations into the wooden trunk?"
Their fellow Wisconsonite, Joe Kapler, takes a more hardheaded look, as befitting his position as a no-nonsense historian and curator at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, whose displays of historic aluminum trees have become legendary.
"I doubt that the good folks at Aluminum Specialty were thinking of modern aesthetics when they created this product," he observes. "They were doing aluminum toys, aluminum doggies, things that were classic.
"I'm sure they were not thinking, 'These would be great for all those new homes they're building in California.'"
As Waak recalls it, the mass-produced aluminum tree got its start when Tom Gannon, Aluminum Specialty's vice president in charge of toys, "took a gamble." The company had come upon a much costlier aluminum tree—selling for $75 to $100—invented in Chicago by a firm called Modern Coatings in 1957. "Gannon thought, if we could retail it for $25, and the customer could carry it out of the store in a box, we've got a hit."
Richard Thomsen, who ran Aluminum Specialty's engineering department, called on fellow engineer Wes Martin. Good choice. "If we had a product that we wanted to figure out," Waak says, "we'd give it to Wes. He'd come up with some weird things."
"Aluminum Specialty Co. took a good idea," Kapler says, "and made it great. They made it efficient and saleable."
Soon housewives laboring in converted naval barracks in Manitowoc—a blue-collar town on Lake Michigan that manufactured submarines during World War II—were inserting aluminum branches tipped with aluminum-foil needles into a wooden trunk.
They built the trees two, four, six, and seven feet high, sold them for $20 to $25, and did well when large tire showrooms—which don't sell many tires during the snowy Wisconsin winters—turned their glass-walled showrooms into glowing forests of aluminum trees.
Aluminum Specialty's first Evergleam-brand tree design made its debut at a toy show in spring 1959, pointing ahead to a very, very merry Christmas for the Waak family. "It became an instant hit," Waak says. The company produced between 200,000 and 300,000 Evergleams the first year alone, Waak estimates. "It was a salesman's dream to have this happen. Suddenly the guy who wouldn't give you the time of day is your best friend."
"Aluminum for lasting beauty," the company proclaimed. Aluminum Speciality also provided the Evergleam Color Wheel, the Santa-Light, and Turbo Color Projector to provide "a glorious panorama of slowly revolving colors."
"The thing you have to understand, these were seasonal products," Waak says. "Every season people want something new. These were new, and it catches the eye."
"Within a few years," Kapler says, "they were cranking them out by the millions."
Competition arrived within weeks. Dozens of firms, including Duralite Aluminum, Morris Novelties, Holiday Industries, Regal Electronics, Renown, and Astralite Ltd., were churning out their own aluminum trees. Some came out with budget models, others with luxury trees. Aluminum Specialty played it down the middle—and remained the market leader, with 65 percent of the market share in North America, Kapler says.
As Charles Darwin could have predicted, aluminum trees mutated and evolved over the years. "We tried putting ribbons on the ends of the branches, in different colors," Waak recalls. "Decorative balls. The revolving stand and lights."
Soon silver trees were joined in the forest by trees of pink, gold, and, unbelievably enough, green. By the third year, branches on Aluminum Specialty erupted in 'pom-poms.'
"By crinkling each needle on splitting machines, and curling it, it formed what we called a pom-pom," Waak says. "That was the biggest hit. You got a reflection of every needle because of the crimping, so you had the maximum amount of light being reflected. There was a real brilliance to it."
But, like so many struggling species in our ever-changing world, the aluminum tree was soon facing extinction. Lindemann and Shimon lay much of the blame, ironically enough, on one of America's favorite young men—Charlie Brown—who, in the 1965 TV special 'A Charlie Brown Christmas,' rediscovers the true meaning of Christmas by favoring an honest-to-god, real (sic) tree over Lucy's preference for "the biggest aluminum tree you can find," preferably pink.
Waak offers a more prosaic explanation. The fad had run its course. "When we first brought the tree out, we said if we had it three years, that would be good," he says. "It lasted ten to 12 years."
By the early 1970s, aluminum orchards were uprooted all across our great land. It was a new era, the back-to-the-earth, natural-is-beautiful movement. Earth Day was born. Aluminum trees were trashed (recycling had yet to make much of an impact, alas), or hidden in closets or attics.
Then, oh so gradually, some made their way to thrift stores and antique emporiums where they caught the attention of society's more advanced thinkers, including artists Tony and Donna Natsoulas, who share a Streng tract home in Sacramento.
The couple found their first aluminum tree at an antique shop, and today owns three, including a vintage Penet-Ray. "I have a fondness for them," Donna says, "because my grandmother, who had streamline furniture and lived in a little ranch home in the Bay Area, had one. Call me sentimental."
"They fit the colorful outrageousness of our house," says Tony, who creates brightly painted, cartoon-like ceramic sculptures. "If we had a regular tree, it would be traditional, and we're definitely not traditional in our house."
"The trees fit the Streng house well. It's got that '50s, '60s look, like our house—instant Christmas. Everything was more instant in the '60s," he says.
Tony and Donna paid all of $35 for their first vintage tree in 1993. Today, vintage trees regularly sell for several hundred dollars. Rare trees—often the pink ones, which were the least popular back in the day—can command several thousand. And aluminum trees and color wheels are back in production, widely available and shimmering as ever.
In Manitowoc, where aluminum trees never completely disappeared (though Aluminum Specialty has long since shuttered its business), they are now omnipresent during the Christmas season, Kapler says.
Manitowoc may have the biggest bragging rights, but it is not the only metropolis capitalizing on the retro appeal of aluminum trees. Brevard, North Carolina got in on it too, thanks to Stephen Jackson, who founded ATOM (the Aluminum Tree and Ornament Museum) there in the mid-1990s. "It started out as a bad joke," he confessed to a reporter from Milwaukee. The museum, which at one point attracted 5,000 people a year, has closed it doors—at least for the moment.
It's true that some fans enjoy smirking at their aluminum trees—or, at least, leavening their love with irony. But scratch the surface and you're likely to discover something deeper.
"It's funny," Kapler says. "Forty years later, for some people these vintage trees—not the new aluminum trees today, but the vintage ones—reflect a warm and fuzzy feeling of holiday times, a nostalgic feeling about the holiday season."
"I was brought up in the '70s," Tony Natsoulas says, "and they hearken back to the '70s disco era. It's tinfoil, and a glitzy look. It's nostalgic to me because it feels like the disco era."
"I just think they're beautiful, that's all," he says.
Jerry Waak still loves the trees even though he no longer sells them, and believes that aluminum trees truly can evoke the holiday spirit. "A Christmas tree can be really anything," he says. "Nothing says it has to be green, or it has to be a certain shape or a certain size. Christmas is something that gets people's attention and dazzles them."
"The key to the whole thing is having that rotating light," says Dave Peterson, who enjoys his mid-century Christmases in a San Jose Eichler.
"Oh, and the color wheels!" Donna Natsoulas exclaims. "Never have enough color wheels!"
The colored lights explain why silver trees are best, says Gary Gand, who owns two mid-century modern homes. Nothing reflects colors like pure silver.
Strings of electric lights are inadvisable for aluminum trees because they can cause a short—or worse.
Tony and Donna Natsoulas, who set up three aluminum trees every season—two silver, one lime-green—go all out with ornaments. Tony, a sculptor, hangs some of his ceramic fish on the trees, and Donna pulls from an extensive collection she's been assembling since childhood, including Christopher Radko ornaments of space aliens and flying saucers.
Many of their ornaments hark from the mid-'50s, and the theme continues on the floor, Donna says. "We set up the 1950s villages under the tree every year, and never tire of it all."
Dave and Lynne Peterson decorate their aluminum tree, a four-foot, tabletop model they bought for a mere $20 at Walgreen's a decade ago, simply. An aluminum tree generates its own glow, so it doesn't need much appliqué. The Petersons stick to a single color of shiny ball ornaments, and add a few icicles. "We don't decorate it the traditional way, that's for sure," Dave says.
Ornaments and other Christmas décor with mid-century themes have started popping up in gift shops and online—abstract mid-century-styled ball ornaments, even a gingerbread house with a butterfly roof.
Travis Smith, a modern furnishings dealer and author of the book 'Kitschmasland: Christmas Decor from the 1950s through the 1970s' (Schiffer Publishing, 2005), suggests arranging pixie elf dolls from the 1960s around the base of the tree, or placing light-up Santas on the kitchen counter.
In many Eichler neighborhoods, including Petersons', many people add a holiday feeling to the streetscape by arranging colored lights behind the opaque glass walls of their atriums. "It creates an interesting effect because of the way the glass is cut," Peterson says.
Gary and Joan Gand enjoy the glow their aluminum tree and color wheel cast into their backyard. "You can go out and play in the snow and see this aluminum pylon calling out into space and changing different colors," Gary says. "It's like a seven-foot-tall lava lamp."
Photos: David Toerge, Ernie Braun; and courtesy Jerry Waak and the Wisconsin Historical Society and its museum collection, Joe Kapler, Donna and Tony Natsoulas, Michelle McGee, Shane Hood, Kristen Heaslett, Mike Seratt, Becky Haycox, Jenny Markley, Nathan Wilber, Amy Atkins, and Alexa Westerfield.
Special thanks to Julie Lindemann (seasonsgleamings.com) and Joe Kapler (wisconsinhistory.org/museum)