To many people, the artificial Christmas tree is emblematic of tradition gone awry, a plastic symbol of what has become a plastic holiday. Yet here’s how Moravian settlers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, celebrated Christmas in 1747: “Several small pyramids and one large pyramid of green brushwood had been prepared, all decorated with candles and the large one with apples and pretty verses.” Therefore, what some historians consider America’s first Christmas tree was artificial.
Back in Germany, where Christmas trees originated, the custom of lopping the tops off firs to make table-top Christmas trees created forests of decapitated Tanne that could no longer grow. Laws aimed at protecting the forests led to the invention, in the mid-1800s, of an artificial tree made with wire and green-dyed goose feathers. These were generally handmade by the user.
Americans were slower to adopt the Christmas-tree tradition; the first President to have one at the White House was Franklin Pierce, in 1856. As years passed, however, Christmas observances became more elaborate, and by the turn of the century tree shortages developed. In 1905 New York City’s department stores had to scramble to get two-thirds of their tree orders filled. Two years later the citywide shortfall was 60,000 trees.
Tree farming solved the supply problem, but by then artificial trees had begun to catch on. As early as December 1900 Ladies’ Home Journal suggested covering a stepladder with cloth, tree branches, candles, and presents. The 1901 season saw stores advertising artificial trees, though at the time only about one American family in five had a Christmas tree of any kind.
Most early artificial trees used feathers. The 1913 Sears, Roebuck catalogue offered feather trees ranging in size from 17 to 55 inches. Stores also sold trees with needles made of raffia, a fiber derived from the leaves of a tropical palm. According to The Guinness Book of World Records , the oldest artificial Christmas tree still on active duty is a small raffia tree from the 1830s owned by a family in Wiltshire, England.
Small, conical “bottle brush” trees used materials such as boar bristles or horsehair and typically came with built-in ornaments and a factory-applied coat of simulated snow. In the 1930s manufacturers of Christmastree lights (themselves an artificial substitute for the traditional candles) sold pre-lit tabletop trees made with cellophane and, later, Visca, a type of rayon fiber. Around the same time, the Addis Brush Company, which manufactured toilet brushes (and is still in the brush business), began making large artificial trees using its toilet-brush equipment.
Before World War II most artificial Christmas trees in the home were tabletop size and served as supplemental holiday decorations, not as the gathering place for opening presents. Larger artificial trees were more commonly seen in places like department stores and bank lobbies. During the war, however, labor shortages and restrictions on rail shipment made natural Christmas trees scarce, prompting some families to forgo their holiday trees or resort to ones made of Visca or crepe paper. Magazines suggested various dour alternatives: evergreen branches affixed to stepladders or attached to the wall in a tree-shaped pattern, silhouettes sawed from plywood sheets, and an assemblage of dowel rods to which one could glue many, many slivers of green paper.
In 1949 The New York Times surveyed several “charming” artificial trees that could serve as a more convenient and (sometimes) less flammable substitute for the real thing. These included a tree-shaped wrought-iron candleholder and trees with cellophane needles. But artificial trees still lacked widespread appeal because they tended to be small and flimsy and didn’t look much like real ones. That changed in the 1950s, thanks to the availability of cheap, mass-produced plastics. This made it possible to manufacture an affordable full-size tree that bore a passable resemblance to a real one and would last four or five years, long enough to justify the cost.
The early 1960s saw a brief vogue for the infamous metallic tree, which bore aluminum-coated vinyl needles. Metallic trees weren’t safe to hang lights on, so a number of models came with an external, multicolored light that illuminated the tree from below. (Nowadays the same effect is achieved with fiber optics.) The Aluminum Specialty Company marketed “Evergleam” trees in pink, green, gold, and silver. In 1964 the Chase Manhattan Bank estimated that more than a third of the money spent on Christmas trees decorating homes and offices that year was spent on artificial trees, with aluminum and plastic selling in about equal numbers.
Aluminum trees, however, quickly lost favor, as few consumers bought a second one when their first wore out. By 1972 metallic models represented less than 10 percent of the pseudo-tree market. High-end plastic trees now imitated a variety of evergreen species, including Scotch pine, Douglas fir, Scandinavian spruce, and balsam. Some models included lighter-toned needles to simulate new growth.
Fake trees were also becoming easier to assemble. Originally buyers had to insert dozens or even hundreds of branches into pre-drilled holes in the central post. Over time, wear on the parts loosened the branches, making them droop. This problem was reduced with the development of hinged branches and trees that open like umbrellas.
Sales increased throughout the 1980s, and by the early 1990s fake trees outnumbered real ones in American homes, though annual sales of real trees are still higher because they cannot be reused. Today about 70 percent of the nation’s Christmas trees are artificial, sometimes with asymmetrical branches, imitation bark, and the aroma of pine-scented potpourri to lend verisimilitude.
Most artificial trees come from Asia. The Hong Kong– based Boto International, founded in 1983, was one of the first modern companies to manufacture “pre-lit” trees and to use injection molding to form more realistic-looking polyvinyl chloride pine needles. Boto’s factories in mainland China ship about six million trees each year, mostly to the United States.
Farmers and retailers of natural trees have fought back through such organizations as the National Christmas Tree Association. The association’s Web site, www.realchristmastrees.org , includes a game, Attack of the Mutant Artificial Trees, that allows players to lob snowballs at fake trees that pop out of cardboard boxes labeled 100% FAKE and MADE IN CHINA.
By now artificial trees have been around long enough to acquire nostalgia value. Feather trees have enjoyed periodic comebacks; several years ago Martha Stewart included them in her line of products for Kmart. Aluminum, Mylar, and fiberglass trees hold retro-kitsch appeal for some. And if you find yourself missing all those fallen pine needles that remain underfoot until at least March, the upscale mail-order retailer Frontgate has trees that come with a bag of needles that you can sprinkle on the floor.