See What Christmas Trees Have Looked Like Over the Past 100 Years
From Victorian antiquity to the Shiny Brite ornaments of mid-century décor and the modern themes of today, tour all of the best tannenbaums in history.
Some would say that the true magic of Christmas can be found in your family's Christmas tree: After all, a trimmed tree builds as many memories as the gifts that can be found underneath it. Evergreens have a long and storied history of being decorated throughout the world. In fact, the ancient Egyptians and Romans once decorated evergreen trees to celebrate the changing of the seasons. According to historians, the Christmas tree as we know it today was brought down through the generations from 16th century Germany. Christians of the time began decorating with lit candles, glass kugels, and sparkly tinsel.
The Christmas tree didn't become a popular tradition in the United States until the mid 1850s when German settlers brought their tradition of decorating a tree for the holidays with them to their new homes. And what did people use to decorate those early American Christmas trees? Traditionally, they were adorned with homemade ornaments or edible treats like marzipan cookies, fruits, and shelled nuts. Colorfully dyed popcorn kernels were also strung into a garland. With the advent of electricity, artificial string lights soon became popular and commonplace in most homes.
Today, the choices for Christmas trees are more unique and personalized than ever: We decorate ours with spools of ribbon, silk flowers, jingling bells, and the heirlooms we inherited from generations past. To inspire you in the holidays to come, tour these 100 years of Christmas trees—from 1919 all the way through 2019—as they appeared in people's homes and public spaces for display. These are the trends that originated from a specific time and place, and remain memorable for those who experienced them first-hand.
A hundred years ago, Christmas trees most closely resembled those of their Victorian origins—real candles were bound to the boughs with wire or clip-on hardware and lit for a soft glow. Pictured here in 1919, two girls enjoy lighting the tree for Christmas Eve.
In the early 1910s, Marshall Field and Company in Chicago (which is now Macy's) started to dress their windows with iconic decorations, along with many other well known stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. This decade also marks the first film release of the iconic tale, A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens.
While the first artificial tree was developed in Germany during the 1800s, having a feather tree was common. The boughs were covered with feathers from geese, turkeys, ostriches, and swans.
It was also common, given the lavish time period, to trim the Christmas tree with lots of decorations like ribbons, satin balls, and glittered stars. Yet, when a man named Frank Woolworth in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, discovered that many German immigrants would hang kugels on their tree, he decided to capitalize on the idea. This was the first time that glass ornaments were manufactured in the United States.
Originally, people would hang handmade ornaments crafted with tinsel, fabric, thread, and other notions. In the midst of the Great Depression, people turned to their pantries for edible decorations: popcorn balls and cranberry garlands were all derived from old European tradition.
It was also in 1931 when the most iconic Christmas tree of all—the tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City—was first displayed in the metropolitan plaza.
The Shiny Brite company produced the most popular Christmas tree ornaments in the United States throughout the 1940s—a great selling point during World War II. In early years, wartime production necessitated the replacement of the ornament's metal cap with a cardboard tab, from which the owner would use yarn or string to hang the ornament.
Pictured here: Mother and daughter decorate their Christmas tree together. By this time, it was a tradition for many homes to trim the tree as a family. Tinsel garlands are draped around toys, bulb ornaments, and a toy topper for the tree.
Tinsel was at its most popular in the '50s. Unlike silver, lead tinsel did not tarnish and retained its shine.
Trees were decorated with hard plastic ornaments, candy containers, and illuminated figures. The finishing touch? Having a small model train chug along its tracks around the base of the tree was a tradition that inspired homes and department store window displays alike. Lionel Corporation, a bestseller for toy trains, peaked in sales in the year 1953.
Mod style was in full force—plastic bells, pinecone figurines, and tinsel, which people would drape its sparkly lengths delicately from the ends of branches to create a waterfall effect. Artificial trees, some of them flocked in white, started to become popular in many households. (Fun fact: The Aluminum Specialty Company based in Wisconsin, manufactured more than one million aluminum trees between 1959 and 1969.)
Pictured here: A family gathers to trim the tree together. The little boy reaches up to position the glass finial topper, made popular thanks to Brite Star, which was still the top manufacturer of decorations in the mid-century modern era.
Natural trees returned to favor, and with a new tradition in their boughs: Department 56, the well-known creator of ceramic winter villages, established the miniatures tradition into a widely known trend. In 1976, they sold their first set of houses known as the Original Snow Village. As of today, they are celebrating over 40 years of business, with dozens of villages that are regarded by many as coveted collectibles.
Pictured here: The family enjoys newly unwrapped gifts by the fireplace; their color scheme of red and gold is perfect for a Christmas tree.
The arts and crafts movement of the '80s made for an eclectic style during the holidays. Family Christmas trees were oftentimes decorated with mismatched ornaments—plastic, tinsel, and glass all combined. This included a blend of family traditions and personal tastes; even a small, outdated ornament passed down from a grandparent carried considerable sentimental value. All ornaments were—and still are—given a place of pride on the tree.
In the '90s, trees were no longer viewed as simply a fixture in the family living room. With the economic boom of the early decade, professional designers (like Christopher Radko and Kurt Adler) and department stores ramped up their sales of themed decoration sets with matching textures, ornaments, and colors.
Pictured here: This icy blue tree was adorned with baubles, angel and moon figures, and finials all in a wintry hue.
At the turn of the millennium, people returned to freshly cut trees. To meet the growing demand and ensure enough trees for the holidays, land in the United States for producing natural trees grew to 350,000 acres. Growers started to plant one to three seedlings for every tree harvested with approximately 350 million Christmas trees.
The idea of a Christmas tree theme was still in vogue. The one pictured here was trimmed with flags, stars, and bulb ornaments in a red, white, and blue patriotic color scheme—perfectly fitting as it was a 2008, an election year.
In recent years, tree technology catapulted our holiday traditions into the modern age. Christmas trees started to go wireless with color-changing styles, synchronized music, and LED lights—all of which made for easy assembly and eliminated the need to connect each light string manually.
A minimalist aesthetic became popular, as did ornaments that harken back to Old World traditions—Polish straw ornaments, replica kugel ornaments, clip-on candle lights. The bottom detail of the Christmas tree—skirts, collars, and buckets—became just as stylish as the topper itself.
What's trending this year? Think: More is more. Maximalism has now taken over modernity in prints and patterns. Shimmer and shine pair beautifully in iridescent ornaments like whimsical holographic characters, crystals, and metallic finishes. Keep an eye out for animals like toucans, flamingos, and winter white swans—and see if these trends return again in the holiday décor of 2020.