Aluminum Christmas Trees (1959-2009)

Most of the aluminum Christmas trees in existence were made by a company here in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Thanks to the ingenuity of a few engineers and salesmen at Aluminum Specialty Company, the tree concept was sold and the first affordable, mass-produced aluminum trees were brought to market just in time for Christmas 1959. Up until the 1990s, there were hordes of the trees forgotten in the attics and garages of former employees. After the tree fad faded, the trees were more or less considered tacky. We thought the design was brilliant in its simplicity--a 7 foot tall tree collapsed neatly into a relatively small cardboard box printed with simple 2-color graphics. Branches were stored in kraft-paper sleeves for protection and easy insertion in the angled holes drilled in the wood dowel trunks covered in foil and held up by a folding tripod stand. The trees were cheap at rummages and thrifts so we bought enough to fill our storefront art gallery--an annual installation from 1993 to 1998. We studied the idiosyncrasies of their design: the way the foil was applied to the trunks or the cellophane tape to the rows of aluminum needles. Installed en masse in a stark white space, the trees formed an undulating mechanical ballet that was at once haunting and sublime. We made portraits of the individual trees with an 8x10 view camera on transparency film which required intense lighting tricks to define their presence. They reflected something poignant about the belief in newness and technology in the early 1960s that interested us (see video below). The photographs became Season's Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree thanks to editor David Brown at Melcher in New York. Designed by Helene Silverman, the first edition quickly sold out after the New York Times, CBS Sunday Morning and USA Today covered "the little pink book" as a prime holiday story at the end of 2004. The media coverage made Manitowoc take the tree story seriously. We met more people in the community who had helped market or make the trees as well as people all over the country who collected them and loved them in ways we could barely imagine. It seemed everyone had a tree story to tell. People showed us incredible snapshots from the 1960s or told us their holiday associations that ranged from childlike sweetness to punk-rock nihilism. Our interest in the trees as manufactured multiples and artifacts of a specific moment of small town innovation could not transcend the pull of straight-up holiday nostalgia. No subject matter we'd addressed before tapped into the emotionality that is Christmas. The burgeoning eBay data base made vintage Evergleam aluminum trees an easy and desirable item to buy and sell online and their value escalated. Trees that were once a dollar at rummage sales now sell for hundreds of dollars online. Pink aluminum trees (perhaps due to their iconic status as an arbiter of shameless American consumerism as in A Charlie Brown Christmas) became the holy grail and sold for as much as $2,000. We stored our trees away despite the popular demand to continue installing them in our gallery each holiday season. After experiencing the media treatment that framed us as "aluminum Christmas tree collectors", we fully comprehended that the trees--in their minimalist tree-ness--could not escape the intensity of Christmas and the media's insatiable desire for fresh holiday stories. We were anxious to pass the aluminum tree mantle to a public institution and that's when Joe Kapler, curator at the Wisconsin Historical Museum came along. He has taken on the responsibility of preserving the history of the Wisconsin-made Evergleam tree through the Museum's expanding collection and annual installations. After 5 years, Season's Gleamings will go out of print after having helped make the once neglected trees and their Wisconsin story museum-worthy.

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