They may be of a bygone era, but these valuable antiques should be stored free of dust and debris.
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crystal decorated Christmas tree
Credit: Kate Mathis

The original feather Christmas trees brought the holiday spirit to German homes in the late 1800s and early 1900s. "When German immigrants made their way to America they could easily transport their family's small feather trees with them. American stores did have feather trees before the 1910s, but they were not seen as worthy to be decorated," says Chloe Wingard, curatorial projects specialist at Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens. "During World War I, the idea of every household cutting down a live tree each year started to be questioned and Americans caught onto feather trees as an alternative." The feather trees became popular in American department stores in the early 1900s to the 1930s. Today, you can find a variety of feather Christmas trees available for purchase.

How They Were Used

Feather trees—with their sparsely needled branches—ranged widely in size and even color. In the past, people would decorate their trees using berries, hard-shelled nuts, or lit candles. "Since the tree's pot is easily seen and not hidden by the bottom branches like we are used to, they would be painted in festive colors and designs," explains Wingard. "The sparseness of the tree branches resemble the white pine trees native to Germany that were most used as Christmas trees there." The branches were widely spaced to keep candles from starting a fire and to showcase the ornaments more beautifully. By the 1920s, the trees also came with glass ornaments for decorating.

Storing the trees was also fairly easy to do. People would fold down the wire branches and place the tree into a box. It was important to protect the trees from dust and moisture when storing them so that the artificial tree could be used for many years.

Caring for Them Today

Today, people choose the feather tree "because they provide a classic element for arrangements and they are very easy to store," says Wingard. "They also do not shed needles or require the attention that a live tree does." Feather trees look beautiful, too, without the effort that goes into using a real tree, and go well with traditional Christmas décor and home-and-hearth themes.

When shopping for a feather tree, you want to look to make sure that the one you're considering comes with a quality wire and is tightly wrapped on the branches and trunk. Why? This is "so the tree can be set up and packed away multiple times without wearing out," explains Wingard. "Fire retardancy is also something to keep in mind when choosing a feather tree."

To keep your feather tree in pristine shape, you will want to do the same thing that people did in the early 1900s: Cover the tree—in a pillowcase (or paper bag)—and put it in a box. "Keeping them sealed in a sturdy box helps to prevent pests nesting and unruly branch bending too," she says. Then it should be stored in a closet or a climate-controlled location, not in an attic or basement where they will be exposed to extreme heat or moisture. The feathers can last a long time if they are treated with care and not ruffled.

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