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Omaha Magazine

Lead Poisoning. Electrocution. Asbestos. Decorations of Yore bring Ghosts and Great Memories

Oct 29, 2020 04:12PM ● By Anthony Flott
illustration red Christmas bulb, with title

Is it any wonder we don't celebrate Christmas like we did in the 1950s and 1960s given the deadly ways we once decked the halls?

Actually, some people still do, dusting off Christmas kitsch carefully preserved for decades. Roberta Mullen of Papillion is one of those people. Every December, Mullen assembles her 6-foot-tall aluminum tree with foil needles that is illuminated by a translucent wheel that turns the tree blue, red, green, and yellow according to the color passing in front of the bulb.

“This was the tree we had growing up in the ’60s,” said Mullen, who inherited it from her parents.

Those who didn’t get such mid-20th century classics passed down to them have sparked a nostalgic online demand for the originals or replicas.

“It’s a big part of the tradition that people celebrated as families,” said Jeff Jorgensen, longtime owner of Tannenbaum Christmas Shop in the Old Market. “‘Grandma had this; I remember seeing that.’”

What many might not know is why some of the 1950s/1960s Christmas bling went bye-bye. Part of the reason was changing styles—the space-age fascination for shiny and metallic things fell out of favor.

Accidental death & dismemberment had something to do with it, too. Mullen’s aluminum tree, for instance, was potentially lethal.

“You could not put electric lights on them,” she said, “or you could get a powerful shock.”

Other Christmas decorations also came with hazards, but darn it if they didn’t look good.

That said, Omaha Magazine is going on a Yuletide stroll through these throwback Christmas decorations that will have readers dreaming of a winter wonderland.

Aluminum Trees

This was a craze sparked in the 1950s by several manufacturers, including the Aluminum Specialty Co. Its Evergleam tree, introduced at the 1959 American Toy Fair, was an instant smash. Trunk and branches were made of aluminum, the needles of foil. A rotating color wheel bathed it in slowly changing hues. The tree could be put on a rotating stand, too. One problem, though—aluminum is a conductor of electricity, so if a faulty wire was added, it might provide a shock or start a fire. That prompted the Consumer Product Safety Commission to issue a warning about them. Still, that’s not what crushed the craze. Turns out that all the bashing the Peanuts gang did on such kitsch as holiday commercialization struck a chord with the public watching the 1965 classic A Charlie Brown Christmas. That, along with new trees made from plastic, contributed to plummeting sales. American Specialty produced nearly a million aluminum trees, but discontinued their production in 1970.

Flocked Trees

Flocking—putting fake snow on a tree or other decoration—has been around since the 1920s but became popular in the 1960s. It, too, came with danger. Craftmaster sold a Sno-Flok kit that gave trees “the soft, snowy beauty of outdoors” while “helping prevent needle fall.” And it was fire-retardant. The kit came with a spray gun attachment for the vacuum cleaner to blow the fluff and one pound of “Sno-Flok” in white or decorator colors. One pound of asbestos, that is. Use of the cancer-causing silicate led to flocking falling from favor.

Tinsel

Another great idea was decorating the tree with poison...er, tinsel. Tinsel was initially made with silver, then lead, which is cheaper and doesn’t tarnish. In the 1950s and 1960s, seemingly everyone was globbing it onto trees. The problem was that lead tinsel is hazardous, as a 1971 FDA report noted. Today, the stringy stuff is made from PVC—but hanging remains a chore. “People nowadays are not nearly patient enough to put tinsel on their tree the way we did,” Jorgensen said. “There were only two and then three stations to watch [on TV] then. You could put all the tinsel on the tree.”

Shiny Brite Ornaments

Never heard of them? These iconic decorations were popularized in the 1950s by Max Eckhardt's Shiny Brite company. The colorful glass ornaments came in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, or decorated with snowy scenes of sleigh rides, carolers, and other Christmasy depictions. And they can still be had today. The Shiny Brite brand revived and is sold online and in stores such as Menards.

Train around the Tree

So what in the N-O-E-L did trains chugging around a conifer have to do with Christmas? Mostly marketing. Manufacturer Lionel popularized the tradition in the early 1900s and, like many of these traditions, the practice reached its peak in the ’50s and ’60s. With the rise of cars and planes, it’s one tradition that went off track.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer

Montgomery Ward introduced him in a 1939 booklet, Gene Autry sang of him in 1949, then he got a stop-action special in 1964. Almost from the start, Rudolph was a hit decoration, coming in various shapes, sizes, and colors, but with one commonality—that red honker.

Village People

It takes a village to celebrate Christmas. Not long after World War II, Christmas villages comprised of tiny houses, churches, and other buildings became a thing. These were first mass-produced by Japanese companies from cardboard or paper. In the 1970s, they were made of ceramic or porcelain. No matter what they’re made of, they seem to multiply like Gremlins. Jorgensen said, “We’ll hear stories, ‘My mantle is full, my dining room table is full, my closet is full, my basement is full, my garage is full...but the kids don’t want them.’”

This article first appeared in the 60 Plus section of the November/December 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.