Recently I stumbled across an absolutely terrifying picture of a Christmas tree.
Specifically, it was a snapshot from a 1958 Christmas party tweeted by actress Mitzi Gaynor. In the foreground are Gaynor, her husband, and Rossano and Lydia Brazzi. In the background is a stark white artificial Christmas tree covered in shiny red balls, a weirdly radioactive take on the tradition of festooning one’s home in evergreen. It looks like it was inspired by footage from a nuclear test.
But then, once you think about it, don’t a lot of aluminum trees look faintly skeletal and irradiated? Some are cute, some are beautiful, some are endearingly kitschy, but there’s always that potential lurking in those shiny branches. And of course when did the aluminum tree burst onto the American scene and briefly captivate popular tastes? The 1950s and ’60s, a golden age of nuclear anxiety.
Curious about whether there was any connection, I called up Sarah Archer, author of design history Midcentury Christmas and the forthcoming Midcentury Kitchen. While she gently disabused me of the notion that this was fully some outright manifestation of intense nuclear fear—really, they were more like the shiplap of their era—she explained the connections between the Atomic Age and the fad, as well as unpacking some of the layers of nostalgia operating in any given Christmas tradition. (She also made me yearn for a silvery art deco Christmas tree.) Our conversation is below; it’s been lightly edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: So one day at work I shared a picture that Mitzi Gaynor had tweeted with this white aluminum Christmas tree with red glass balls. Immediately someone asked whether it was somehow because of nuclear fear. Because it’s particularly eerie and it’s really something out of a nightmare image, in the most cheerful way possible. So: Are these trees literally about nuclear fear?
SARAH ARCHER: That’s such a funny reaction, because they do actually come from the Atomic Age. They definitely weren’t intended to say, like, you’re all about to meet your doom! They weren’t meant to be gothic. But absolutely, it has this frozen-in-amber, artificial feeling to it.
Fake trees generally actually go pretty far back. What happens in the ‘50s, which is when they really burst onto the scene, aluminum’s abundance was really a byproduct of the war effort. Many of those materials were used or really ramped up—or even invented—for wartime applications. So the aluminum industrial complex, as it were, after the war was like okay, we’re ready.
Alcoa was the biggest manufacturer of aluminum for the war effort and for aluminum products throughout different parts of the 20th century, but they didn’t actually make trees, although the Alcoa brand was used a lot to promote them. Most of them came from this place called the Aluminum Specialty Company, in Manitowac, Wisconsin, and they started to get really popular and they would say, “made with real Alcoa Aluminum.” Alcoa quickly was like, oh, this is great. They published a how-to dos and don’t design guide, which is amazing. You can find it online. It has these beautiful illustrations and things like, Don’t hang electric lights on them, because actually you’ll get electrocuted if you do that. One of my favorite don’ts is, Don’t hang garlands or chains on it because it’ll disrupt the inherent beauty of the tree.
There was this real effort to glamorize these. You’ll see lots of household ads from the ’50s and ’60s that show an ultra-glam housewife with an aluminum tree and a set of aluminum tumblers and a toaster and a coffeemaker. This was the wonder material of this time period. As far back as the ‘30s it was referred to as poor man’s silver. It was this cheap workaround to look refined and glam at a time when nobody could afford actual silver.
So basically they had this moment. They were hugely popular and new and modern looking and Space Age-y in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and then in the ’70s, as quickly as they had become popular, the counterculture happened and it was like back to nature—artificial dyes are bad and natural food is good and suddenly they were totally square and completely fell out of favor. They went into this dormant period and then started reemerging at yard sales. In the ’80s and ’90s people would find them at estate sales and be like, oh my God, this is so cool.
And they also of course loom large in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. That is one of the big iconic portrayals. Did you see that when you were a kid? I feel like everybody has, but it may have been a while.
Yeah! Now that you’re saying that, I remember it.
The main plot point is the Christmas musical, but then there’s this sidebar about the tiny sad Christmas tree that is collapsing under the weight of a single ornament, which is the tree that he chooses. And it’s in contrast to this shiny pink metal tree that Lucy thinks is the greatest thing since sliced bread. It was really kind of a rebuke of consumerism, saying, All this postwar consumer craziness has got to hit its limit at some point, and we need to really focus on what matters. That’s a similar message to the Grinch, right—all this consumerist claptrap is distracting people from the real thing.
I think of them as being kind of like Carpenters records—everybody had one but no one will admit it. And now that enough time that their first phase of being popular is a long time ago, there’s less of that Cold War baggage that goes with it. It’s not seen as this super square thing. It’s just this funny novelty, and I have one, actually. It’s tiny, it’s tabletop sized, and it was like $30.
You mentioned the lights—is that why the color wheels were a thing? So you wouldn’t electrocute yourself?!
That’s exactly it. It is unlikely to really happen, but on the off chance that one of your lights is askew or there’s a break in the plastic that covers the wires, God forbid, theoretically somebody could be electrocuted, so they were very big about don’t put the lights on it. But Christmas lights are of course a huge thing in their own right, so they invented this optical color wheel that rotates. At the same kind of yard sale where you’d find a tree, you’d probably find a color wheel. And they would sort of move across the needles and reflect those colors, so if you had colorful ornaments, it was like you almost had the look and feel of Christmas lights.
Did the evergreens fall out of fashion? Was it 50/50? How popular were they?
That’s a really good question, because it was a relatively short time that people were into them.
I don’t think they were the majority. I think they were always a novelty fad, the kind of thing that you might use for a few years and then go back to what you had before. But I would love to know more statistics about that, because it’s difficult to piece together because I think they had an outsized media presence relative to their actual popularity, if that makes sense.
Were they something that actually read as something cool that movie stars had? Was it hip? Was it mainstream? Where was it on the scale of accessible to aspirational?
Probably the maximum you could spend would be like $50 in 1965. Not dirt cheap, but not prohibitively expensive. And so I think the idea was that, basically, they were a piece of accessible glamour. For people who maybe lived in a new build house and suddenly had space and new maybe modern furniture, it was like, Oh, now we have this new look and we don’t want the old-fashioned tree. We want the new glam tree that’s white and Space Age. And certainly they were featured in magazines and they would be dolled up. They would do concept trees in House Beautiful and House and Garden that were all ornaments of a particular color, all pink or all blue.
It reminds me of shiplap! Or reclaimed wood.
Oh, absolutely. It’s a trend where lots of people say, oh, that’s cool! You see it on Pinterest and you’re like, whatever, I’m not going to actually bother to do that. But it’s definitely a look and feel that has a moment, and five years from now people will be like, Oh my God, can you believe people used to have shiplap?
The other thing is, Christmas in the ’50s and ’60s acquired a vogue for futurism—there was suddenly this real interest in futuristic toys and technology and images of Santa Claus riding rocket ships. Even in the Soviet Union, too—the Soviet equivalent of Santa (who’s called Grandfather Frost, this is actually a real thing) would be depicted—this was a secular Soviet version, they’d celebrate a holiday, basically just New Year’s Eve. Grandfather Frost was part of that. So he’d be riding a rocket ship and saying “happy new year” in Russian. All of that futuristic stuff, it’s not for everybody. A lot of people like the old school carols and hot chocolate and icicles and the Victorian old-fashioned Christmas that is still popular.
I was going to ask about this idea—I was reading about this idea of outer-space Santa. There’s this whole Space Age, Atomic Age thing happening and, to circle back to this idea of nuclear anxiety, that’s an undercurrent of everything in this period. How much does that infect Christmas overall? It sounds like it crops up more than I would have thought.
It definitely crept up really big time in that time period, the ’50s and ’60s, in part because it was also underscored by things like Disneyland. There was this whole entertainment industrial complex of TV specials about science and learning about atomic energy in cartoons and toys that were designed to introduce kids to the concept of chemistry and plastic and all sorts of things. It was like the whole atmosphere of the country was swept up in this concept of science and progress and patriotism, which is hard to think about now, because now we’re theoretically anti-science. But that was really a huge thing, and it crept into everything—you see it in advertising, you see it in architecture, plans for bomb shelters. It was on everyone’s minds, in a way.
I think, broadly speaking, it was also about the end of the war and wanting to live in something that really looked different. You don’t want to think about the old wooden radios that we had during the war. We want something brand new and totally different that doesn’t remind us of that. It was sweeping the slate clean.
I was thinking about this at Target and Michaels recently. They have several collections around different themes—like if you want beachy Christmas, this is your aisle of the store. But everywhere I go that has Christmas offerings there’s always a line of “vintage” or “retro” and it’s interesting because a hallmark of this era was: We’re going to be new! And modern! And futuristic! And Santa’s on a rocket shop and our trees are made of aluminum! And now the way we package and sell Christmas in the ‘50s is—
There’s this amazing illustration that is the perfect way to explain this. This illustrator named Thomas Nast, who was one of the big newspaper and magazine illustrators of the time period—in 1866, in an issue of, I believe, Harper’s Magazine—published this drawing called “Santa Claus and His Works,” and it was all these little vignettes of Santa Claus depicted as a little slimmer, but mostly as we’re used to seeing him, sewing dolls’ clothes and making toys by hand, with carpentry tools. He has this giant ledger of good versus bad where he’s keeping track of everybody. He’s depicted basically as almost a medieval craftsman. And the 1860s is like the height of the industrial revolution. It wasn’t like everybody was living in a rural area. The transcontinental railroad had just been built, the periodic table had just been discovered. It was this very high tech, highly industrial, rapidly changing time in Great Britain and America, and Santa Claus is almost like a Craftsman ideal. He’s just like the gothic revival and the 19th century obsession with medieval craftsmen, like William Morris and John Ruskin and all these theorists saying medieval craftsmen are doing it right. They use real materials and honest labor and they’re not faking it with newfangled nonsense, industry or mass production, all that bad stuff.
That looks old-fashioned to us now, but it also looked old-fashioned to them, from the perspective of the 1860s. They were cultivating this medieval, Renaissance-y feeling, something that was preindustrial, not mechanized, not all about retail, and not all about this modern factory world. It’s layers of nostalgia. So the funny thing now is that, to us, all the ’50s stuff looks totally old-school and “vintage” Christmas means something like the first Star Trek series, that it was meant to be futuristic and now looks super-old. It is a tradition with many layers.