Evergreen Christmas Tree Had Many Imitators
In Last Two Centuries
|Old German feather trees look very scrawny compared to today’s artificial trees.
Christmas trees have been an essential part of Christmas for hundreds of years. Imitations have also been in use for more than 200 years.
A German substitute for a real evergreen tree, existing at least as far back as the 1700s, was a Christmas pyramid. It consisted of several round flat platforms, decreasing in size from bottom to top, and mounted on a central rod. This tree-like apparatus was covered with cut evergreens and decorations were placed on the shelves.
One advantage of the pyramid was that it could support the decorations of that time. They were often made of blown glass lined with zinc or lead, sometimes as much as a quarter inch thick, and they would have been almost impossibly heavy to hang on a real tree.
The earliest known reference to this Christmas tree substitute is found in a diary of a German-speaking Moravian immigrant who, on Christmas Day in 1747, wrote that the settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, had “several small pyramids and one large pyramid of green brushwood... all decorated with candles and the large one with apples and pretty verses.”
The first artificial Christmas trees were the feather trees made in Germany in the late 1700s. They were very popular, and in the 19th century were produced commercially. By this time, blown glass ornaments were being made which were paper thin and light in weight.
The trees were made from twigs or wooden dowels, which were wrapped with dyed green goose or turkey feathers. These were inserted into a larger dowel or tree branch, and the whole creation was placed in a wooden base. If necessary, the “trunk” of the tree was wrapped with green or brown paper to simulate tree bark.
Later versions used wire instead of twigs and dowels for the branches, which were often finished on the ends with red composition berries or metallic candle clips. In today’s world of the cultured Christmas tree, these old feather trees look very scrawny.
Sometimes miniature feather trees were made to use in conjunction with nativity scenes, doll houses, train sets or for mantel decorations. They might also be held by a papier mache Santa Claus.
When World War I began, the importing of feather trees from Germany ceased, and a few began to be made in the United States. They will usually be marked “Made in U.S.A.” on the bottom of the base.
Feather trees were again imported from Germany after the war and their use continued until the 1950s, with a several-year interruption during World War II.
Early in the 20th century, artificial Christmas trees made from wire and bristles were made in both the United States and Japan. They were commonly referred to as bottle-brush trees. Some came sprinkled with artificial snow and others had ornaments made of glass or cotton.
A variation of the feather tree made of green-wrapped cellophane was also popular during this same period of time. Made by the Standard Cellophane and Novelty Company, it was not very durable and very few still remain.
The ability to purchase an artificial tree was the only way that families in many parts of the United States could acquire something that looked like a Christmas tree. Many areas, such as the Great Plains, were miles from any living tree, and if there was one, it certainly couldn’t be cut down for just a one-day event. Therefore, when the Sears Roebuck catalog combined with the U.S. Postal Service to provide Christmas trees by mail order, for as little as 50 cents, many people were able to enjoy this aspect of Christmas for the first time.
Artificial trees of aluminum or spun glass, varying in size from small ones that would fit on a tabletop to seven feet tall were produced in large numbers following World War II. They were made in green, white, silver or blue. Satin bows of gold or silver, or tiny bells, were used to decorate them. These “decorator” trees were high fashion; an old-fashioned green tree with colored balls and lights were not found in homes where the hostess wished to be stylish.
Other materials have also been used for artificial Christmas trees. One version featured wire branches wrapped with crepe paper. These ranged in size from six inches to over eight feet.. They were made in red, blue and white, in addition to the standard green. Another similar model used green rayon fabric instead of the crepe paper.
Imported feather trees are again being made and are fairly expensive. They are also appearing on the secondary market as old ones. Since genuine old feather trees usually sell for several hundred dollars, a collector needs to be careful in his purchasing.
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