The Legacy of the Aluminum Christmas Tree
By Karen E. Livsey
JAMESTOWN, N.Y., December 8, 2008 - The Post-Journal - It was 50 years ago when a sales manager for an aluminum cookware company saw a hand-made aluminum Christmas tree. He took the idea back to his company, and in 1959, America saw the first commercial aluminum Christmas tree.
It was not billed as an artificial tree but instead was called a ''permanent'' tree. Some people immediately embraced the new space age tree. Conservation of real trees was not a consideration, but the chance to have a new modern interpretation of an ornamental tree inspired some and dismayed others. Artificial trees of various kinds had been available in earlier years. There was even a base-metal tree available in 1950 along with feather trees and visca (straw-like rayon) trees in green or white.
Aluminum trees were first manufactured by the Aluminum Specialty Company in Manitowoc, Wis. It is estimated that this company made more than four million trees in a 10-year period. ''Shredded'' aluminum strips were wrapped by hand around the wire branch and then fluffed to spread out the aluminum needles.
Each branch was then packed in a cardboard sleeve. Any branch could be put in any one of the holes in the pole that was the trunk because the branches were all the same length. This made the tree easy to assemble. The correct shape was attained because the holes in the pole that formed the trunk were drilled at different angles. The first trees had a folding tripod base to hold the tree trunk. Later, other stands became available that rotated the tree and played music.
It was recommended that electric lights should not be put on the trees because of the possibility of an electric shock. Color wheels, which had earlier been used to decorate in other ways, were used to illuminate the aluminum trees with different colors as the wheel with four or five colored transparent sections rotated past the light source. The branches were not strong enough to carry many ornaments. Usually the decorations on the trees were only glass balls and often of only one color.
Eventually many other companies manufactured their own version of an aluminum Christmas tree. Some later models had pompom ends on the branches to make the tree look fuller. Colors were introduced - gold, blue, green and even pink. Some models were only one foot high, while the tallest were seven feet. The more expensive models had more branches. Even half trees were made to put on the wall in small areas or an office. The interest in aluminum trees peaked about 1965 and by the end of the 1960s few were being manufactured.
These trees are collector items today, but there are reproduction trees available now. A search on the Internet found at least one source for a new aluminum tree. It was a seven-foot tree for about $550.
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This year, we have two aluminum trees included in the holiday exhibit. One is a small table top tree located in the case on the first floor. The second tree is located in the Chautauqua Lake Room on the second floor.
Think about taking some time out of your busy schedule to stop in and visit the holiday exhibit, ''I'll Be Home for Christmas,'' at the Fenton Mansion, 67 Washington St. The Fenton History Center is located on Route 60 just south of the Washington Street Bridge in downtown Jamestown. The exhibit is open Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Jan. 17. The exhibit is also open Sunday afternoons in December from 1 to 4 p.m. The exhibit is sponsored in part by Jamestown Business College.
The purpose of the Fenton History Center is to gather and teach about southern Chautauqua County's history through artifacts, ephemeral and oral histories, and other pieces of the past.
If you would like to donate to the collections or support the work of the Fenton History Center, call 664-6256 or visit the Center at 67 Washington St., just south of the Washington Street Bridge.
Visit www.fentonhistorycenter.org for more information on upcoming events, education programs and other happenings at the Fenton History Center.