How to Have a Very Vintage Christmas
My wonderful 1950's spinning tree:
We begin with an absolutely wonderful spinning plastic tree from the 1950s. It revolves due to the rising heat from the light bulb in its base—no energy efficient modern bulb will work in it, I’m afraid, it requires the wasteful heat produced by an incandescent. Adorned with all the signature toys of the era—a train set, gingerbread men, toy planes, candy canes, a rocking horse, a bicycle and, alarmingly, a six shooter pistol—it is in breathtakingly good, like new condition.
Dancing couple, Barclay Co circa 1935
I combine the spinner with my mom’s blue mirror—these dark sapphire mirrors were a hugely popular and fashionable statement in the 1930s—and the Barclay skaters. The Barclay Company made cast lead soldiers and a wide variety of figures often combined with Lionel scale train sets. They stopped making these figures at the entry of the United States into WWII, and retooled their factory to make bullets instead of toys. There are a large number of reproduction figures currently available; many are sold mistakenly as vintage, or not so innocently, as a fraud. The old ones are heavier since the reproductions are cast from composite metals rather than pure lead, and the old ones are inevitably a bit beat up, with missing paint—oh, and it’s lead paint, as well. So do not allow children to play with the old ones, they are for display only.
Along with the skaters are a few nice old bottlebrush trees, most likely these are late 1940s vintage but these items are difficult to date with accuracy.
Glolite Tree & Barclay Skaters
Here's some information about The Barclay Company, who made the cast lead skaters in my video:
Some mercury glass balls from the 1920's and 30's:
My fabulous old celluloid Santa:
Hanging from my early electric, 1928 ceiling lamp are a wonderful selection of mercury glass balls from the 1920s and 30s. The mirroring was created by swirling mercury inside the hand-blown glass balls, so these are also not for play and if you have any, please keep them high up on a tree or as in this example, hung from the ceiling so that tiny hands cannot reach them.
In the midst of the mercury balls hangs one of my treasures: a small celluloid Santa that belonged to my mother. I love his whimsical smile! Celluloid was first created in 1862 in England by Alexander Parkes and items made from it were marketed under the trade name Parkesine; it is regarded to be the first true thermoplastic. Until the less fragile Bakelite and Catalin superseded it it was the plastic of choice for small, inexpensive decorative items and remained in use for such well into the 1950s. There are many vintage Christmas items made from Celluloid; I have quite a few in my collection, including a little pack of celluloid reindeer trimmed with jaunty red silk ribbon bows.
Here's some information about Celluloid, the original plastic:
Next in the movie is another of my prize possessions, my mother’s Glolite cellophane tree from the 1930s. Glass rods extend inside the hollow body of the tree and transfer light from a bulb outward to their bubble-light shaped tips, thus being a very early example of the concept that would lead to fiber optic light. The tree is decorated with many very small mercury glass ornaments and is always the showpiece of my holiday display, although it is not as showy as several other items.
My mom's Glolite tree & the celluoid reindeer herd
Here's a great site offering lots of information on vintage tabletop trees:
- tabletop trees
The Internet's largest most complete history of Christmas Tree Lighting in North America.
I also adore the small celluloid Santa on his sleigh with reindeer up next in the film—I found him on eBay a few years back. There are still quite a few of these available, as well as several variations of the theme.
Celluloid Santa & reindeer
The very small painted cardboard tree with a small light bulb inside in the video is somewhat of a mystery. I found it in an antique shop and it may have been handmade.
And of course the real attention-getter of the collection is my wonderful Sparkler Aluminum Pom Pom Tree from the 1950’s, when they were the height of trendy style. The tree in this film is a four-foot table top tree, and I recently found a six foot tree in pristine condition that will join the collection this coming winter. I can’t wait to set it up for the first time in sixty years!
My wonderful Pom Pom Sparkler aluminum Christmas tree!
More old mercury glass balls
These aluminum trees can be found in many variations and sizes, as well as a wide price range. The more branches a tree has, as well as the degree of fluffiness of the pom poms at the tips of the branches determine value, with the bushier, more flamboyant tress fetching more money. The most expensive are the colored trees, as they did come in pink and—more rare—green. When they were introduced their real potential as a fire hazard was immediately understood, so it was recommended that electric lights or tree toppers never be used with aluminum trees, advice that still makes sense. Two new items were therefore developed to enhance their display: The revolving tree stand and the equally revolving color light.
The color wheel is a very simple design; it is simply a great big incandescent bulb (the light I bought came with its original 200 watt floodlight) shines thru the colored plastic panes of a wheel as it slowly rotates. The original bulb was bright enough the illuminate the tree from the far side of a large room—in fact, it was bright enough to light up (and heat) the entire room and potentially my entire house! Authentic may be wonderful, but I replaced that massive, energy-sucking bulb with a nice new CFL (compact florescent lamp) bulb and moved the color wheel closer to the tree.
Of the three key components—the aluminum tree, the color wheel and the revolving stand—the hardest to find in good, working condition was by far the stand. Expect to pay more for a functional stand in like-new condition that what you paid for the tree and the color wheel combined. For my “new” bigger aluminum tree I am currently searching for a stand that is also musical—they play traditional carols on a small metal music box style disk.
The aluminum tree is decorated with more mercury glass and celluloid ornaments, as well as a few of the felt, ribbon and beaded decorations I made when I was a kid. The collection is about nostalgia, of course, and the seemingly irresistible draw the past. We seek comfort, and we look behind us the find it, a pursuit with which I find no flaw as long as the past doesn’t start to overpower the wonder of the present.
Enjoy the old stuff, in other words—and, trust me, I have lots of old stuff—but remember that right now, today is a gift and a miracle!
(This video is accompanied by Oh, Christmas Tree! played by my 1890's Regina music box.)
(I am an artist and the author of the Suburban Sprawl series of novels as well as two nonfiction books. Find out more about my work at RobertaLeeArt.com.)
Copyright © Roberta Lee 2012. All rights reserved.