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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Shimmering Nostalgia: The Aluminum Christmas Tree

scene of aluminum xmas tree at night

                                               They entice and satisfy. They shimmer and spin. And these days, after years of near extinction, aluminum Christmas trees are back in the limelight, beloved by mid-century modern aficionados as the ultimate in holiday d├ęcor.
Once derisively called 'tin Tannenbaums,' aluminum Christmas trees provoked or infuriated many people when they first hit the market in 1959—but entranced so many others.

Jerry Waak, a sales manager for the Aluminum Specialty Company, the outfit that first mass-produced the silver-needled tinsel trees, recalls typical reactions. "People would laugh," recalls Waak. "Some people would say, 'You're kidding!' A lot of people said they would never sell. Some people would just about throw you out of their store."

But that wasn't what young Bill Yaryan thought about the aluminum tree his parents set up in their furniture store in the early 1960s. He'd sit on the floor and watch the silver tree rotate on its stand while the color wheel revolved as well in a kind of crazy dance.

nostalgic xmas photos
"When the color wheel and tree were rotating, the effect was so wonderful and so totally artificial," says Yaryan, who lives in a modern Alexander home in the San Fernando Valley. "Tree, 'snow,' and ornaments would change in blazing unison to red, green, and blue, as the tree and wheel spun endlessly. It was completely unhinged from any other Christmas decorations in use then. Its space-age novelty was great."
Over the past few years, aluminum trees have made a comeback, and nowhere more so than in mid-century modern homes, where they just seem so—at home. What could be more eye-on-the-future, after all, or—dare we say it?—greener, than an aluminum Christmas tree?

"Aluminum," Gary Gand observes, "was the material that was going to save the earth back in the '50s. When we were kids, aluminum foil was just the greatest stuff. And aluminum cars."
"They are one of the great icons of the time," says Gand, who lives in an Alexander tract home in Palm Springs and in a Keck-and-Keck modernist home near Chicago, "like the boomerang, the Formica kitchen table top, and the TV dinner."
Unlike 'real' trees—but really, how is wood any 'realer' than aluminum?—the aluminum sort never drop their needles. "All the kitsch but no sticky pitch," is how Scot Nicholls, who lives in a San Jose Eichler, puts it. "There's no mess involved. Christmas goes up—and Christmas goes down and into a box, and it's gone. It's pretty easy."
And Gand, who insists against some evidence to the contrary that mid-century modern homes "are incredible green-friendly" thanks to passive solar design and compact plans, says that aluminum trees complete the environmentally friendly package.

"There's some astronomical number of Christmas trees that get thrown out every year. It's like 100 million trees every year. But people don't pay attention to it—because it's Christmas," he says. "The beauty of the aluminum tree, if you're a green person, it's the same tree over and over again for 50 years."

"The aluminum tree seemed to symbolize a new birth in technology, a better, more rational way of living," Julie Lindemann and John Shimon wrote in 'Season's Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree' (Melcher Media, 2004), their book that ignited the aluminum tree craze. They concluded: "The modernist Christmas had arrived."
Dave Peterson, who owns a San Jose Eichler home, sensed the modernist appeal of aluminum trees even when he was a boy living in his parents' 1870s Victorian home in Wisconsin—not far, coincidentally, from Manitowoc, where Aluminum Specialty manufactured its trees. Peterson's mother filled their home with precious antiques, and their Christmas was highly traditional.
But young Dave coveted his neighbor's Christmas. "The lady across the street from us had an aluminum tree in her picture window, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever."

"It's the rotating lights along with the chrome," he says. "Think about Cadillac bumpers—the chrome '50s."

But if 1950s modernism was all about rational planning and efficiency, then the aluminum tree transcends its genre—just as that other icon of the '50s, the flying saucer, transcends the U-2, not to mention anything flown by Pan Am. Lindemann and Shimon, who began their foray into aluminum mania by collecting as many Aluminum Specialty trees as they could find and arraying them, forest-like, in their art studio, picked up on this early.

"As we looked more and more closely at the trees in our studio," they wrote, "we became increasingly aware of their psychic presence. We wondered if their antenna-like forms attracted some kind of unknown magnetic energy and absorbed the vibrations into the wooden trunk?"
Their fellow Wisconsonite, Joe Kapler, takes a more hardheaded look, as befitting his position as a no-nonsense historian and curator at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, whose displays of historic aluminum trees have become legendary.
"I doubt that the good folks at Aluminum Specialty were thinking of modern aesthetics when they created this product," he observes. "They were doing aluminum toys, aluminum doggies, things that were classic.
"I'm sure they were not thinking, 'These would be great for all those new homes they're building in California.'"
As Waak recalls it, the mass-produced aluminum tree got its start when Tom Gannon, Aluminum Specialty's vice president in charge of toys, "took a gamble." The company had come upon a much costlier aluminum tree—selling for $75 to $100—invented in Chicago by a firm called Modern Coatings in 1957. "Gannon thought, if we could retail it for $25, and the customer could carry it out of the store in a box, we've got a hit."
Richard Thomsen, who ran Aluminum Specialty's engineering department, called on fellow engineer Wes Martin. Good choice. "If we had a product that we wanted to figure out," Waak says, "we'd give it to Wes. He'd come up with some weird things."
"Aluminum Specialty Co. took a good idea," Kapler says, "and made it great. They made it efficient and saleable."
gold xmas tree with pom poms
Soon housewives laboring in converted naval barracks in Manitowoc—a blue-collar town on Lake Michigan that manufactured submarines during World War II—were inserting aluminum branches tipped with aluminum-foil needles into a wooden trunk.
They built the trees two, four, six, and seven feet high, sold them for $20 to $25, and did well when large tire showrooms—which don't sell many tires during the snowy Wisconsin winters—turned their glass-walled showrooms into glowing forests of aluminum trees.
Aluminum Specialty's first Evergleam-brand tree design made its debut at a toy show in spring 1959, pointing ahead to a very, very merry Christmas for the Waak family. "It became an instant hit," Waak says. The company produced between 200,000 and 300,000 Evergleams the first year alone, Waak estimates. "It was a salesman's dream to have this happen. Suddenly the guy who wouldn't give you the time of day is your best friend."
"Aluminum for lasting beauty," the company proclaimed. Aluminum Speciality also provided the Evergleam Color Wheel, the Santa-Light, and Turbo Color Projector to provide "a glorious panorama of slowly revolving colors."
aluminum xmas tree ad
"The thing you have to understand, these were seasonal products," Waak says. "Every season people want something new. These were new, and it catches the eye."
"Within a few years," Kapler says, "they were cranking them out by the millions."
Competition arrived within weeks. Dozens of firms, including Duralite Aluminum, Morris Novelties, Holiday Industries, Regal Electronics, Renown, and Astralite Ltd., were churning out their own aluminum trees. Some came out with budget models, others with luxury trees. Aluminum Specialty played it down the middle—and remained the market leader, with 65 percent of the market share in North America, Kapler says.
As Charles Darwin could have predicted, aluminum trees mutated and evolved over the years. "We tried putting ribbons on the ends of the branches, in different colors," Waak recalls. "Decorative balls. The revolving stand and lights."
Soon silver trees were joined in the forest by trees of pink, gold, and, unbelievably enough, green. By the third year, branches on Aluminum Specialty erupted in 'pom-poms.'

"By crinkling each needle on splitting machines, and curling it, it formed what we called a pom-pom," Waak says. "That was the biggest hit. You got a reflection of every needle because of the crimping, so you had the maximum amount of light being reflected. There was a real brilliance to it."

Full story at :  www .eichlernetwork. com/article/shimmering-nostalgia-aluminum-christmas-tree

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