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Martha's Faux Christmas Trees

Martha Stewart Living, December 2009

When artificial, shiny aluminum Christmas trees were first created and manufactured in the late 1950s, their appeal was not that they were reusable, environmentally responsible, and easy to store, but rather that they were sparkly, space-age, chic, and fun to look at. 

Millions of the trees were manufactured from 1958 to 1969 in New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and elsewhere, with the largest models (7 feet) selling for about $25. The trees gradually fell out of favor and were relegated to attics, basements, and garbage heaps.

Aluminum trees with removable branches, a central trunk, and an electric color wheel placed around the base to reflect light off the boughs were not the only artificial trees created to replace the ubiquitous evergreen. Feather trees were popular for many decades, and other charming trees were fashioned from wood, with carved branches. I have seen many vintage trees made from fringed tissue paper glued to wooden dowels.

Now it seems that artificial Christmas trees are all the rage again. They are indeed a lovely alternative to fresh evergreens, and their use and popularity are a clear and sensible response to environmental concerns. No tree needs to be cut down. No tree has to be thrown away or recycled.

Personally, I have always preferred aluminum, feather, or paper trees and have luckily found more of them over the years in antiques shops (I found a mother lode in Portland, Maine), as well as new interpretations of vintage examples in shops such as ABC Carpet & Home, in New York City. Instead of costing $25, these trees, old and new, can now sell for hundreds of dollars. Then again, field-grown evergreen Christmas trees, which last just a couple of weeks, cost quite a lot, too.

I set up quite a few trees around my house. In fact, even the hallways are bedecked with glittery trees. The process of setting them up is pretty uncomplicated, but the fluffing and straightening of the boughs, which are stored in boxes or tubs, takes awhile, and I think it is this initial primping that really enhances the final appearance. 

Once the trees are plumped, I hang the ornaments. I try hard to make each tree a statement of color or coordination within its space. Aluminum trees look really great with balls and swags in one or two colors. Feather trees allow for a bit more diversity and will actually hold hundreds of ornaments if carefully arranged. The new glittery trees with complex branches look better themed and more monotone.

I have never put electric lights on these trees. I understand from my research that they were not intended to be illuminated with string lights but instead by the light-reflecting color wheel at the base, rotating with a small motor. I haven't found the wheels, but I don't think my prettily decorated trees need such additional embellishment. 

This year, I will be using bronze trees in my dining room, with silver tinsel and vintage red ornaments. In the living room, I plan to set up silver trees. (I found a lot of beautiful silver wreaths at Michaels two years ago that I will use on the windows.) The trees will be filled with green and turquoise ornaments and bead swags that I've collected. In my bird room, I want to use the big green-and-blue aluminum tree I found in Maine. It will be covered with golden ornaments and golden tinsel swags.

Our collecting editor, Fritz Karch, also loves that artificial trees don't drop needles, don't need water every day, and are reusable and versatile. He reminded me that the trees come in many colors besides silver, such as white, gold, blue, green, pink, red, and bronze. I have given white ones to Susan Magrino, my publicist. She uses them in a Modernist space with blond Heywood-Wakefield furniture. My daughter, Alexis, loves the rare pink trees in her contemporary rooms. Kevin Sharkey also loves the pink trees, and fills the branches with hundreds of silvery and glass ornaments.

I will always use these trees, and I agree with this sales pitch from a 1960s Sears catalog: "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. It's really durable [and] fireproof....You can use it year after year."

Learn How to Make the Glittered Star Tree Topper

Comments (2)

  • 26 Dec, 2009

    Can you please tell me where to purchase the white owl decorations on the tree?
    RobynfromOz

  • 8 Dec, 2009

    I just saw the bronze christmas tree from ABC Carpet on your show. Can you tell me the name of the manufacturer for the base and the tree so I might be able to get a set for myself?