Hello and happy vintage holidays, everyone!!!
The holidays aren’t right around the corner — they’re right here, right now! Whether you’ve trimmed your Christmas tree already or are still brainstorming your theme and looking for gifts for grandma (see here), there’s still opportunity to integrate vintage decorations into the decor of your home or onto the needles of your tree.
I believe that decorating Christmas trees with inspiration from the styles of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s is a great way to infuse intriguing traditions of the past with your own modern creativity. And thanks to sites like Etsy and Ebay, finding the right vintage decorations at the right prices is now easier than ever without the hassle of having to dig through thrift stores, yard sales or your Grandmother’s basement.
Whether you’re shopping for vintage Christmas decorations to add a touch of historic holiday or you want to duplicate a vintage look reminiscent of a specific era, this post has all the information you need to decide which vintage Christmas decorations are best for your tastes.
Keep reading after the jump for great vintage Christmas tree decoration suggestions that you can buy right now on Etsy and Ebay. Plus, background on how and why Americans decorated their Christmas trees the way they did in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s!
Vintage and holiday lovers, I look forward to hearing your feedback on this post — especially if you have some insights on the Christmas tree decorations of the ’40s-’60s yourself!
I know I’m inspired to ask my Grandmother if she ever had an aluminum Christmas tree in the ’60s — especially one of those rare pink ones! Don’t know what I’m talking about? Keep reading today’s post and you’ll find out!
Plus, check out this week’s Shop Finds page for 12 great vintage Christmas tree decorations as suggested by me!
Let me know which “Christmas tree era” is your favorite by leaving a comment below — or sending some love my way on Twitter, Facebook or email!
Happy holidays all, and to all a very VINTAGE Christmas!
VINTAGE CHRISTMAS TREES: 1940s
Christmas trees of the 1940s varied in size and shape. They varied in shape mostly because many people were still finding their trees in natural habitats — in other words, they were driving into the forests and cutting down an evergreen for themselves!
It wasn’t until the late ’40s/early ’50s that Christmas tree cultivation proliferated to establish tree farms, offering the population perfectly pruned & trimmed fir, pine and spruce (mostly in the UK) to enjoy in the corner of their living rooms.
So in the early to mid ’40s, a natural Christmas tree was mostly likely smaller in size and a bit scraggly. A few branches could be missing or the entire tree tilted slightly to one side!
But either way, society in the ’40s celebrated Christmas with the same zest and joy that we do today, and decorating the Christmas tree was as much as an annual tradition then as it is today.
Research shows that the typical tree of the ’40s was not only smaller in size and most likely cut from its natural habitat, but its decorations focused on three essential things: “Angel Hair” spun out of fiber glass, colored lights or bulbs (often eerie blue lights!) and an eye catching “tree topper” that would be most likely year after year.
Christmas lights were wired in a series, so if one light went out the entire string was kaput! Because Angel Hair was made from fiber glass, if you touched it from the wrong angle bits of glass would sink into your skin (ouch!). Sounds like kids weren’t “stroking” the Angel Hair too often in the ’40s!
I enjoyed reading this man’s memories of Christmastime in 1940s Newark, New Jersey.
He writes on the abundance of Santa Claus and how if you wanted to see outdoor Christmas lights, you’d have to drive through the “wealthy” neighborhoods.
VINTAGE DECORATIONS FOR A 1940s CHRISTMAS TREE
Vintage Angel Hair on Ebay
$9.98, CLICK HERE TO BUY!
Vintage Blue Lights (intended for outside use) on Etsy
$19.95, CLICK HERE TO BUY!
1940s Vintage Santa Claus Celluloid & Foil Tin Tree Topper on Etsy
$18, CLICK HERE TO BUY!
VINTAGE CHRISTMAS TREES: 1950s
By the 1950s, families were purchasing Christmas trees grown on official tree farms. These trees were larger in size and more attractive in shape. The picture above illustrates just how big the trees were in comparison to the people enjoying them!
While decorative elements of the ’40s remained popular, a new product had hit the marketplace and quickly grown to become the “must-have” decorative device of the period.
Founded in 1937, “Shiny Brite” was THE company for your glass Christmas tree ornaments. We’re familiar with this type of ornament today as they’ve recently become vogue again: Glass balls of various shapes, colors and hand painted or screen printed designs hung from the tree with metal cap and hook.
To date a Shiny Brite ornament from World War II during the early ’40s, one need only find an ornament made with no metal. Metal production was restricted to bare necessities, so ornaments adopted cardboard caps that owners would then loop their own yarn or string to hang from their Christmas trees. Talk about homespun!
Shiny Brite ornaments ruled the market and many ‘o Christmas tree until the first artificial “aluminum” trees were introduced in 1958 (more about them farther below!). At the height of it’s success, Shiny Brite had four operating factories in the United States, making it a true all-around American made product. The company shut it’s doors in 1962 but was revived beginning in 2001 when another company (Christopher Radko) reissued some of the most popular Shiny Brite glass ornaments.
Thankfully, Angel Hair and its gnarly glass fibers were replaced with the safer (not to mention more shiny!) tinsel. Still, according to my research on tinsel I learned that it was made from lead for quite some time. Not a safe substance to have anywhere in your home at anytime of the year!
It was laid on tree’s branches to drape down into the branches below as if snow. Another reason for tinsel’s popularity in both the ’50s and ’60s is that it was a safer alternative to lights, which burned so hot that they could set the trees on fire (especially the aluminum ones of the ’60s).
Tinsel came in various colors but was most popular in silver so to resemble winter snow!
VINTAGE DECORATIONS FOR A 1950s CHRISTMAS TREE
1950s Vintage “Shiny Brite” Glass Tree Ball Ornaments on Etsy
$14.50, CLICK HERE TO BUY!
Vintage Tinsel on Etsy
$10, CLICK HERE TO BUY!
Vintage Foil Angel Christmas Tree Topper on Etsy
$5.95, CLICK HERE TO BUY!
VINTAGE CHRISTMAS TREES: 1960s
Beginning in the late ’50s, the traditional “natural” Christmas tree began to lose its appeal as the society of the ’60s began to adopt more “artificial” into their lives with increased production of all-things-fake-that-look-real: Like artificial Christmas trees made from aluminum.
Artificial Christmas trees made from aluminum were first introduced to the market in 1958. Thanks to national advertisements on television and in print publications like newspapers and magazines, the awesomeness-that-was-aluminum quickly gained a share of the market. I wish I had statistics to support my theory, but based on my research it appears that perhaps 1 out of 3 families in the ’60s may have had an aluminum tree!
Because Aluminum Christmas trees were made from flammable foil, stringing lights throughout their branches was a risky idea. So, owners of foil trees also became proud owners what was called a “Color wheel.” The color wheel was plugged into a nearby wall outlet and turned on each evening to spin and rotate, projecting color from below the tree and thus illuminated into and throughout the branches.
Witnessing the full effect of a color wheel and aluminum Christmas tree working together was quite an epic event! Watch the video farther below to see how these foil trees took on futuristic space age effects thanks to their color wheels.
Their height of popularity began to wane by 1967, but not before every catalog, magazine and newspaper advertised their own version to buy. “Whether you decorate with blue or red balls . . . or use the tree without ornaments – this exquisite tree is sure to be the talk of your neighborhood. High luster aluminum gives a dazzling brilliance. Shimmering silvery branches are swirled and tapered to a handsome realistic fullness. It’s really durable . . needles are glued and mechanically locked on. Fireproof . . you can use it year after year.” – Sears, 1963 Christmas Book
Aluminum trees came in various sizes AND colors! My friend and vintage clothing expert Dawn of Timeless Treasures Boutique taught me the wonders of the “pink aluminum tree.” They’re rare to find but a great investment for the true collector — or just to have a truly one-of-a-kind holiday decoration! A ’60s pink aluminum tree was even sold on Ebay in 2005 for $3,600!
When re-creating your own vintage Christmas tree a la the ’60s, remember to disregard lights in favor of the color wheel or if you so wish to add adornments, some glass ball ornaments. While you can string today’s non-flammable light through a foil tree without risk of burning down the house, a true vintage ’60s tree would have opted otherwise!
VINTAGE DECORATIONS FOR A 1960s CHRISTMAS TREE
1960s Aluminum Christmas Tree on Etsy
$75, CLICK HERE TO BUY!
1960s Vintage Colorwheel for Aluminum Christmas Tree on Etsy
$75, CLICK HERE TO BUY!
1950s Vintage Glass Tree Ball Ornaments on Etsy
$25, CLICK HERE TO BUY!
1960s VINTAGE ALUMINUM TREE & COLOR WHEEL VIDEO
If my language above doesn’t do the workings of the color wheel and aluminum tree enough justice, just watch this short video to see how it all works!
What’s interesting about the color wheel is that it literally must be positioned about two feet away from the tree in order to project its color into the foil branches.
Oh, how groovy! Definitely leave a comment if you wish you had an aluminum tree and color wheel this Christmas!!
MORE VINTAGE CHRISTMAS INSPIRATION
2010: Vintage Christmas Decorations from Etsy
PHOTOS: Vintage Christmas Morning Memories
REFLECTION: How to Celebrate the Holidays with Vintage Traditions
PLUS: How to Rock an Ugly Holiday Sweater in Style
Stacey Kay says
What an interesting post! Thank you so much for this!
Excellent article, Sammy! I had no idea about tinsel being leaded back then, yikes :-#
My aunt had the silver tree and color wheel, and I was mesmerized by it. I thought she must be so rich to have a tree like that! As far as tinsel goes, I HATED IT. MY MOM used to make ME put it on the tree! One piece at a time. One. At. A. Time. I could not do it! so tedious i would end up throwing bunches of it at the tree and getting in trouble. Hate tinsel. Never, ever had it on one of my trees and I had have 35 trees! I did see some at the local thrift shops just today, in the old original boxes. I picked some up to sell and also a butt load of plastic/celluloid ornaments, like deer, elves and santas.
Martha Davison says
What fun!!! Thank you for taking me back to my childhood. We had the tree and that fabulous color wheel. BUT…the color wheel turning to “A Summer Place”??? Maybe a Christmas tune from Nat King Cole would have been more festive. Thank you for this mavelous blog. I can’t tell you how much fun it is to stroll back into the 50s and 60s.