When I was a kid, I loved the fresh Christmas trees my parents put up, but I also wished that we could have a lovely space-age aluminum tree like the one my grandparents used, all nice and shiny, illuminated with a rotating light disc. It's one of the Christmas traditions that seem ancient now, but only began after World War II. Sarah Archer is the author of a new book, Mid-Century Christmas: Holiday Fads, Fancies, and Fun from 1945 to 1970. She explains where those those aluminum trees came from.
The company that produced the most aluminum for the war effort was Alcoa, but there were also some smaller companies, too, many of which were based in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, of all places, which was one of the big aluminum capitals of North America. Like a lot of mid-century Christmas items, including the acrylic rubber that coats Christmas lights cords, aluminum trees came from thinking about repurposing a material produced for the military. The aluminum strips that were used to make the trees were originally designed for something called chaff, which was sprinkled over enemy territories to scramble radar because the little pieces of metal would diffuse the signal.
Many 1950s aluminum tree producers used Alcoa branding. The exterior of the box would say, “We proudly use Alcoa aluminum.” You could put ornaments on these trees, but one of the challenges of decorating them was not getting electrocuted, which was mentioned prominently in the how-to pamphlet that came with the tree. Because it was not safe to put electric lights on the metal, the companies distributing the trees would sell a rotating lamp that would shine different-colored lights on the tree to bathe it in magenta or purple.
That's not the only Christmas tradition that arose from the postwar Cold War era. Read about how our modern Christmas celebrations were shaped at Collectors Weekly.