Located off of the frigid shores of Lake Michigan is a Wisconsin town called Manitowoc. To the name, most people wouldn’t bat an eye, but this town is the home of the aluminum Christmas tree, the tree that defined an era, albeit for a very short time. Come Christmastime, a few private collectors and the Wisconsin Historical Society loan out their Christmas trees, having the trees displayed in store windows for people passing by to see. Once seen as a tacky fad, these Christmas trees pull in big bucks, way beyond the original price. The resurgence of these shining trees is a testament to their longer-standing sentimental value. Just how did this artificial tree become so popular and then fall out of fashion so fast?
It all started in the windy city of Chicago where Tom Gannon — Manitowoc’s Aluminum Speciality Company’s sales manager – noticed a metal Christmas tree in the display window of a chain Benjamin Franklin craft store. The tree didn’t just catch the attention of Gannon, but also the eyes of customers who wanted to buy the tree. However, the metal tree’s bulkiness and heavy weight made it unfeasible to sell and distribute to the mass market. Taking the tree back to headquarters, Gannon’s goal was to produce a similar tree that was lighter, easy to assemble, and cheaper for the 1959 American Toy Fair.
Aluminum manufacturing was quite innovative during wartime, and when WWII ended, the manufacturing companies transferred this technology into consumer household products. Another company had patented a tube storage system for branches and a special drill hole angle. Seeing the opportunity, the Aluminum Speciality Company formed a licensing agreement with the other company to use these patents to produce the Evergleam tree.
So what made their brand and aluminum trees in general so successful? The company records and interviews indicate that the usability, reusability, and affordability of the trees made it a budget-friendly alternative to many consumers. The trees were light, buyers could take the tree off the shelf, put it in their cart, slide it into their car, and bring it home without the help of a store clerk. Aluminum Speciality Company’s fifty years of business had created a great network of established relationships with nationwide chains, making distribution and sales of these trees a coast-to-coast operation. Storage of the branches was simple and could be put back into the original box. The other company’s patented paper tubes covering the branches could be reused and protected the branches from being creased or bent in storage.
What made the Evergleam tree additionally successful was — not only its lightweight size and its easy storage capabilities — but also the brand’s variety. There was a multitude of tree sizes, which ranged in price and size. You could buy a tabletop tree for five dollars, or you could go all out and buy an eight-foot-tall tree for twenty-five dollars. The style of the branches varied as well.
Their classic Evergleam branches contrasted against the long needle branches and the unique pompom branches. Their 1962 spruce tree looks like the branches were inserted upside down, but gives the appearance of the spruce tree.
The colors are varied with a powdered blue, blush pink, and the oh-so-classic silver tree. There were even the Evergleam Bow-Tip Christmas trees that had Sasheen ribbons in reds, pinks, or blues. Their late 60s release showed gradient tones of blue-green and blue-red, which still maintain their color even today.
In the early 1960s, the company made accessories for the trees. Instead of Christmas ornaments, you used these color wheels to decorate and illuminate the trees. Yet most people weren’t using the color wheel. When looking at Christmas photos of aluminum trees in homes, people bought the aluminum tree but decorated it with ornaments just like a normal tree. Consumer photos were evidence, showing that people wanted tradition with only a pinch of something different.
By 1965, the aluminum tree’s appearance on the Charlier Brown Christmas Special was theorized to be a blow to the now-popular Christmas icon. Charlie’s choice of a natural Christmas tree over Lucy’s desired pink Christmas tree was a symbolic so-called battle against the “true meaning of Christmas” and the hype of capitalism. Some people say it had an effect on the company, but there were many other factors at play at the time.
When the television special came out in 1965, the aluminum tree wasn’t a novelty anymore. There were several brands, almost fifteen in total that manufactured and sold aluminum Christmas trees, meaning it wasn’t that “something different” people got curious about. People also wanted to trim their trees, especially with glass ornaments. Many of the aluminum trees could not hold the weight of such decorations, limiting how buyers could display their Christmas decorations.
The Evergleam tree was the original company in the artificial Christmas tree game, with five percent of the market, meaning it still rode the aluminum Christmas tree wave the longest. For many of the demands, the company would respond with a new tree. Around the mid to late 1960s artificial trees, trees that were mimicking real trees with life-like green branches that had more branches, became popular. The company responded back with the frosted tree, that had over a hundred branches for a six-foot tree. This fuller version was different from their original trees trees which generally had only ninety branches for the same six-foot size. But even still the demand for the silver aluminum trees seemed to dim.
People wanted to trim their trees, filling them with ornaments and tinsel. In the late 1960s, Aluminum Speciality introduced the Evergleam which was manufactured with plastic and aluminum. Unlike the original Aluminum trees, which were held together with Scotch tape, these branches were more durable and could withstand the weight of ornaments. Yet, it seemed to not be enough. This saturation of the market and the entrance of the life-like artificial Christmas trees saw production decrease and diminish completely by 1971. The lifespan of this aluminum Christmas tree trend only lasted a mere twelve years.
Resurgence in popularity happened in the 1990s when local Manitowoc artists photographed and published a book called Seasons Gleamings, showing off the splendor of the aluminum Christmas tree. At the same time, the Manitowoc aluminum tree exhibition started in 2005 with eight trees donated by private collectors. As the years progressed, the exhibition increased to almost thirty trees. The boom of the midcentury aesthetic coupled with shows like PamAm and Mad Men further cemented the mid-century aesthetic as a design that could be unchained from its period era. Image-based social media platforms like Pinterest allow people to amass media content. Online marketplaces like Etsy and eBay became places for people to buy these trees, albeit at a quite steep price.
At the time of the Evergleams and other aluminum trees’ productions, people often viewed these trees as cold, commercial pieces of a competitive post-war economy. Many Baby Boomers of the time didn’t think much of the trees, some even said in interviews how they wanted a real tree. But when reminiscing about these gleaming, metallic trees, a resurgence of nostalgia takes hold, and the once critical view melts away against the passing of time.
Do you have any memories associated with these artificial trees?SKM: below-content placeholder