Daylight savings ends, the days shorten painfully, and darkness is reprieved only by the shortest blips of daytime. Seeing the cheery, iridescent lighting of a fully dressed Christmas tree peaking through the windows of every possible house and business lightens the heart. And while we might think the lights were a way to add pizzazz to a tree, it had a predecessor — tinsel.
Even if you haven’t personally encountered tinsel, you’ve probably seen your fair share of it in Christmas movies, the stringy silvery strands weren’t always this throwback decoration of the mid-century. In fact, it had quite a different social standing going back hundreds of years.
Rewind to 17th-century Germany, and that’s where you’ll see tinsel start adorning a room. Before that, tinsel was strips of gold and silver woven into fabric for the very wealthy across the royal courts of Europe and England. By the time tinsel hit the decorating scene in Nuremberg, it wasn’t gold, but it was still expensive strips of thinly cut silver. The tinsel was supposed to be reflective, bouncing the light from the candles and mimicking the shimmering, glittery effects of a starry night sky for a diorama nativity scene people would set up under or near trees. This combination of a dry flammable tree adorned with even more flammable burning candles may seem dangerous, but it was all in the name of representing the starry nativity night and Christmas spirit!
The problem with the tinsel of this era was that it was short-lasting. Silver tarnishes quite quickly and gets dull, losing its shininess way before Christmas day. Yet it wasn’t really until the 20th century – when a large wave of German immigrants came over to the US — that tinsel really changed. The expensive quick-to-dull silver tinsel was swapped out for more affordable aluminum and copper metals. While these silver alternatives were a reusable affordable alternative, they came at a dangerous cost. These aluminum tinsel strips were even more flammable than their previous silver counterparts, making a Christmas tree a triple threat of setting ablaze. When the World Wars occurred, copper and aluminum supplies were reduced and funneled into military manufacturing, and tinsel faded from the consumer market.
With a small break due to rationing, tinsel sparkled back onto the scene during the early 20th century as lead strips, which held its shininess for longer. Lead tinsel’s tough, less flammable, and durable iridescence made it a Christmas decorating staple alongside string lights and ornaments. However lead tinsel is made from, well, lead, a highly poisonous substance whose toxic properties can prove deadly. Lead toxicity is easy to achieve if ingested or touched, as it can be absorbed through the skin. Yet, throughout the mid-century, it was touted as a fairly safe substance to swallow and, as one 1959 newspaper said, won’t cause poisoning. That is not the case, especially with animals and children, who were the more likely to touch and ingest large quantities of tinsel. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that the US government set limitations on how much lead could be put into products. With this new regulation, lead tinsel ceased production.
Today, you can still find the shimmery strips, albeit a little more flammable than its lead predecessor. The tinsel you find in stores today of synthetic, plastic-y PVC, but its shininess hasn’t caught on like the tinsel of the past. If you want to bring a little bit of Christmas past to your holiday decor, you can do so, just make sure there’s nothing in reach of curious mouths.SKM: below-content placeholder