Ach Ja, Tannenbaum

Assembling an Evergleam aluminum
Christmas tree, Season's Gleamings, 2004
Last week Franziska Felber called from Hamburg as part of her research on artificial Christmas trees. With our book Season's Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree now out of print, we didn't expect much interest in our tree story this year so were surprised. Franziska, a 27-year old journalist apprentice from Berlin, talked with us at length about aluminum tree history in Manitowoc. She ended up focusing on the history for her SPIEGEL ONLINE article titled Holy Tinsel  published on Friday, December 17, 2010. It's written in German, which we could not read so my generous and kind cousin Phil Glander, a retired professor of German, provided a translation and we've posted it below.  Judith Moriarty also wrote a piece about her memories of aluminum and other Christmas trees for Milwaukee's THIRD COAST DIGEST titled Once upon a time: A Tale of Christmas Trees Past published on December 10, 2010. Prompted by this journalistic interest in the trees, we checked online to see if copies of Season's Gleamings were still available only to find the prices fluctuating wildly from $10 to $100 per copy (original cover price was $16.95) everywhere from Amazon to Ebay. We decided to offer up a few signed copies with an 8x10 glossy inkjet "portrait" print of a gold Evergleam tree through our Etsy Store. We finally mustered up the energy to set up a single aluminum tree in the entryway of our studio. We're grateful the trees haven't been forgotten and that fans continue to surface. Last year, the Wisconsin Historical Society set up a spectacular and didactic exhibition of the trees which seemed their penultimate finest hour! We await their induction into a design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art someday as their sleek geometry and "tree-in-a-box" concept are so stunning that we feel they truly deserve such a treatment.

P.S. 2012 Etsy design writer Jeni Sandberg revisited the trees for a new generation in her column published in December 2012 History Lesson: The Aluminum Christmas Tree.

P.P.S. 2013 The Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison set up an exhibition, 'Tis the Season, from November 26, 2013 to January 11, 2014 featuring the largest selection of Aluminum Special Aluminum trees ever. Articles touting the show have run in the LA Times Travel section by Mary Forgione,  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Meg Jones, The Cap Times by Lindsay Christians and more.
Self-portrait in Neo-Post-Now Gallery, Manitowoc, Wisconsin,
with aluminum forest installation, December 1996
Holy Tinsel
It was pink or gold and as tall as a man - but one thing it wasn't - real.  In the 60s millions of Americans in the US set up an aluminum tree at Christmas time in their living room.  The artificial tree became an emblem of the Space Age until a figure from the funny papers started its downfall.  

By Franziska Felber
English translation by Phil Glander

"Get the biggest aluminum Christmas tree you can find and paint it pink!" That's what Lucy, the little black- haired girl, told her comic strip friends, Charlie Brown and Linus, for the first time 45 years ago on American TV.  In the "Peanuts" Christmas movie, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Lucy, like many Americans, had fallen for a Christmas fad - an artificial metal Christmas tree.

But what does Charlie Brown do?  He ignores Lucy's orders and forgets about the shining pink. violet and red fake Christmas tree and gets the only real tree he can find instead:  a crooked little tree which loses its needles at the slightest movement. Charlie disappoints Lucy, but his decision has far reaching consequences for the aluminum tree.

The animated film "A Charlie Brown Christmas" put an end to the biggest Christmas phenomenon of the 60s and gave it the coup de grace at the same time.  At first the aluminum tree was so sought after in the USA that the Aluminum Specialty Company alone sold more than a million of the glittering trees with little metal curlicues.  The tree fitted perfectly into the "Space Age" when artificial materials were the last word and every day technology the spirit of the age.  But Charlie Brown's decision disrupted sales and people threw the colorful metal trees in the garbage.  Finally production ended completely.

Manitowoc, Capital of the Aluminum Fad

The story of the aluminum tree, this shining Christmas phenomenon, was not yet over.  The spurned fake trees celebrated a brilliant come back thirty years later.

Two photographers were the saviors of the tree.  Julie Lindemann and John Shimon both come from a small city, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, which was the capital of the aluminum tree craze in the 60s. The trees were manufactured there and adorned not only living rooms.  "In the space age there were these kitschy taverns with neon lights.  At Christmas they had these aluminum trees behind the bar.  I thought they were very
exotic.  It was like they were from another planet." says photographer Lindemann recalling her first encounter with the fake trees.

The special feature of the trees from the Aluminum Specialty Company in Manitowoc was that the roughly hundred branches of a tree six feet tall all were the same length.  They were stuck into various places on the trunk and formed the shape of a Christmas tree.  The aluminum trees were featured at a toy fair in New York in 1959.  In the 60s the model "Evergleam" became the bestseller of the company and sold like crazy in shining colors of silver, green gold and pink.  Until Charlie Brown came along.  In 1962 sales of the aluminum trees reached their peak, in 1967 they were scarcely in demand, and in 1969 they were removed from production.

Artificial Forest Causes a Sensation

When the Peanuts movie was shown on TV for the first time Julie Lindemann was only eight years old.  But today she still believes that the end of the aluminum trees came with Charlie Brown.  "The movie was shown every year and became a kind of fixture."  So people wanted a real Christmas tree to decorate their living rooms instead of a colorful tinsel tree.

Lindemann who had seen her first aluminum tree in a tavern returned to her home town as a grown woman. Aluminum trees had been stuck in the attic and the garage for nearly thirty years by then.  People watched Lindemann and her partner Shimon in disbelief when they decided in the 90s to collect the remaining trees and build a forest of them for the gallery they owned together.

The two photographers bought the trees for a dollar or so each, and nobody could believe that anyone at all was interested in the discarded kitschy giants.  "We had to hear all the time about why anyone wanted to have junk like that." Lindemann says.  In 1993 the collection had grown to about 40 trees, all of which Lindemann and Shimon decorated their gallery with.  A painful experience for Lindemann because it took days for her to set up the trees.  "In the end I was bleeding and crying.  The branches are very sharp and they cut my hands and arms.  But they were so beautiful that I forgot my pain when I was finished."

Christmas Among the Prototypes

The bigger their collection got, the more Lindemann became interested in the history of the trees.  But no matter whom she asked, nobody could remember Manitowoc's days as capital of kitsch.  Yet here the "Evergleam" was manufactured - the most popular aluminum tree in the US.  Finally chance came to Lindemann's rescue on a winter day in 1996.  Shortly before Christmas she was in the gallery.  Outside it was icy cold, inside the trees were lighted.  Some were revolving every minute and making a slight rustling sound.  The doorbell rang.  An elderly couple stood in the cold, asked to come in and walked through the shining forest.  The man looked around and said, "I designed these trees."

The man in the forest was Richard Thomsen, former chief engineer for the Aluminum Specialty Co., a large manufactured of aluminum cooking untensils.  An expert in mass production, in 1958 Thomsen was given the task of copying a hand made aluminum Christmas tree seen in Chicago and getting it ready for mass production - as quick as he could.  Thomsen did just that with the help of two colleagues.  Since then he had spent every Christmas under a silver colored prototype nearly nine feet tall.  When he met the two artists he was touched to see that his achievement had finally been acknowledged.

The local press soon became interested in the forest in Lindemann's gallery- and so were the residents of Manitowoc.  They were proud again of the rejected product of their city.  Many did the same thing Thomsen did, they came in the gallery and told of their past with "Aluminum Specialty." Some took out their "Evergleam" boxes out, set the glittering giants in living rooms and store windows and thus began the shining renaissance of the aluminum Christmas tree.  But after Lindemann and Shimon erected their winter forest five years in a row they'd had enough.  They exhibited their trees for the last time in 1998.

Trees on Ebay

Before they packed them away for the last time they took pictures of their favorite trees and made a picture book of them.  It appeared in 2004 under the title "Season's Gleamings."  Lindemann and Shimon gave some intereviews but they didn't count on what happened next.  The biggest American media came to Manitowoc to tell the story of the home of the aluminum trees.  They called Manitowoc "Tinsel Town."  "We didn't know how powerful Christmas was for the media," Lindemann says.

But they were happy about the attention the city received.  "In the US small towns have a bad image.  They look real small against the glamour of Hollywood and this whole marketed life style. But suddenly here was something people could be proud of."  Glamour was back in Manitowoc.  And trees which once could be bought at garage sales for a dollar now were going for a hundred times as much.  In 2005 an especially rare pink colored aluminum tree went for the record sum of 2600 Euros on the internet.

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P.S. One of our favorite aluminum Christmas tree stories was by Rachel  Manek for Fox 11 TV in Green Bay from 2004. In the space of a day, the reporter and her crew of one interviewed key people throughout Manitowoc County to tell the tree story. The fantastical CBS Sunday Morning crew and Russ Mitchell had already visited Manitowoc by then and we've posted that piece below too. In addition, various bloggers white about Season's Gleamings time and again.

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