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The Origins Of Christmas Trees And Their Decorations Part V

Updated on December 13, 2012
Aluminum Christmas Tree
Aluminum Christmas Tree
Pink Artificial tree
Pink Artificial tree

Decorations and Artificial Trees

Decorations In The 19th Century: Glass Beads And Bulbs

Decorations worldwide were generally simple and edible. In 1883, popular decorations in the United States were small yellow apples with shiny spots called “ladies’ apples.” German immigrants, however, had already begun to place glass ornaments upon the branches of their trees. Already in Lauscha, Thuringia, small workshops were producing glass bead garlands. There were not, however, enough for export. This remained so until in the 1870s the beads made their way to both England and elsewhere with the immigrating Germans.

While by the 1850s the German Lauscha Company in Thuringia was manufacturing glass bead garlands, blown glass bulbs and even shaped ornaments, the trend was slow to catch on. The United Kingdom began to use these products in the 1870s. In the United States, however, this trend was not popular until a decade later.

By 1871, American glassmaker, William Demuth of New York, had manufactured the first American-made, “silvered” glass balls and bead chains. These were still rare in the 1880s, with only a few stocking them. The Erlich Brothers, a New York toy wholesaler, published a catalogue containing pictures of glass balls. Ten years later, Amos M. Lyon had three pages of ornaments in his toy and doll catalogue. Yet, the big break did not come until ten years after. In 1890, F.W. Woolworth store introduced glass ornaments into the United States. He had gone on his first European buying trip and run across the products on sale everywhere. He bought 200,000 ornaments. These were handcrafted hand in Germany since the 1870s - their moulds being the finest available at the time. The Germans continued to provide the States and other parts of the worlds with hand-blown glass ornaments until the 1930s – with a break for World War I. It was, in fact, a cottage industry, employing, by 1900, some 100 small workshops throughout the country. Czechoslovakia had a similar system operating for export in the 1890s.

Christmas Decorations In The 19th and 20th Century: Tinsel

Tinsel, another tree staple, was also a German invention - though the process for making it had first originated in France. In 1610, German craftsmen secretly copied the formula, using real silver, and duplicated it. In 1878, Nuremberg began to develop and sell what many call “Icicles” or tinsel. Soon the United States was importing them. By the 1920s, the Americans had developed a new type of Icicle. These “lead-foil” creations were used until the 1960s when it was decided they were unsafe. Replacing them were Mylar products.

Tree Lighting

Candles had always been a staple for tree lighting. The major problem was the potential fire risk. Initially, people placed wax at the end of the branches of the Christmas tree. They then affixed the candle to it. Alternatively, they used pins. Later, little candleholders, as well as small lanterns, made the process somewhat easier if not actually completely safe. By 1890, clips attached to the tapers made the process even easier. The concern with fire is one explanation as to why Christmas Trees only went up Christmas Eve and remained lit for a short time period.

Electric lighting changed this pattern. A plaque at the Hotel del Coronado, California marks the site of the first living outdoor electrically-lit Christmas tree in the United States. It was a pine and made its appearance on December 24, 1904. Boston had an illuminated outdoor tree as early as 1912 as did New York while Pasadena, California, claims to have one in 1909 and Philadelphia in 1913. In Canada, the first outdoor illuminated tree took place in 1896 when an electrically lit Christmas tree appeared in Westmount, Quebec.

By the early 1900s, large stores began to erect huge, lit Christmas trees to attract more customers into the premises. This has become the trend ever since, with large department stores like Macy’s, Gimbels, Eatons and Simpsons, known in the 20th century for their brightly lit trees and Christmas window displays. Outdoor trees did not become common in Europe, however, until after World War I. The custom has now become common with many cities and towns erecting a large tree in a prominent place.

Outdoor lit trees, such as the famous one found in New York Rockefeller (1931; 1933) and the Boston Common’s Christmas tree are examples of how Christmas trees have increased in size and popularity for outdoor spaces. The tree for Boston is a gift from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, for the help Boston sent after the Great Halifax Explosion in 1917. The National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. was unveiled to a crowd of 20,000 for the first time by President Calvin Coolidge in 1923.

Artificial Trees

The 1900s saw many innovations in the Tree Tradition. Metal hooks were invented, providing safer hanging of the decorations. Germany began to manufacture artificial trees. It produced a “Goose Feather Tree.” This concoction of metal wire and goose (or turkey) feathers dyed green became a popular addition to the lobbies and main rooms of many hotels and large stores. The residences of wealthy individuals also adopted the practice sometimes putting up immense trees of dyed ostrich or even swan feathers. This fad lasted between1900 and 1950.

The Americans response to feather trees was the “brush” tree. They were the product of the Addis Brush Company coming from the same material and using the same process they had created for their toilet brushes. A product of the 1930s, they inspired many imitators over the following years. During WWII, artificial trees became the choice of many a family in England. While real trees still dominated public places, family homes chose small artificial ones. They took up less space – you could easily place one on a table, and could be left in an instant when an air raid sounded, without worrying.

Following the end of World War II, the Americans began to take up the challenge of creating the perfect Christmas tree. This was the “Silver Pine” created first in Chicago in 1958. The tree migrated to England during the 1960s. Some types made the entire process of set-up and decorating extremely simple as they came already decorated. They also offered a no-fuss, no-mess convenience that appealed to many.

Today, the most common of the artificial trees consists of recycled plastics. Although reusable multiple times, it is not recyclable. The result is the ongoing “Which Christmas tree is “Greener” – natural or artificial?


Christmas trees continue to mark the celebration of the seasons. Over the centuries, preference for tree type and ornaments changed with the times. Technology has had its own impact as have wars and necessity.


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