If there’s one thing college students know, it’s this: anything vintage is cool.
And that’s something the Wisconsin Historical Society understands as its popular exhibition, “‘Tis the Season,” returns to the Wisconsin Historical Museum to highlight one of history’s greatest holiday traditions ? the aluminum Christmas tree. And better still, these trees have roots in Wisconsin.
The trend dates back to 1958, when the Manitowoc-based Aluminum Specialty Co. caught wind of an aluminum Christmas tree created by a competitor in Chicago. Although the tree was expensive and needed improvement, Aluminum Specialty redesigned the structure of the tree and slashed the price to make it marketable to the masses. And sure enough, it did the trick: aluminum Christmas trees would explode in popularity and sell over 1 million throughout the 1960s.
According to Joe Kapler, Wisconsin Historical Museum curator, creating the exhibit was an easy decision given the local history of the trees.
“We tell stories about Wisconsin’s people and places and businesses and all of that, so this is really a story about Wisconsin business. Also, they don’t make wickets and gadgets, they made something that people think today are really cool: aluminum Christmas trees,” Kapler said.
The exhibit features 16 trees of various colors and sizes, called Evergleam trees, most of which were made at the Manitowoc plant. Each tree sits under dim lighting where the aluminum strips on each branch point in all directions, casting blurred reflections and scattering glimmers of light.
A few trees are cast by the glow of brightly colored floodlights, a popular accessory for the aluminum Christmas tree. Some floodlights also feature wheels of different colors that slowly rotate over the floodlight to gradually change the color of the tree.
According to Kapler, these unique trees were popular as Christmas decorations simply because they were different.
“They had a clean look; you could throw colored light on them. It was just not your traditional green Christmas tree with lots of those ornaments that looked kind of like a Victorian era aesthetic,” he said.
If you weren’t around for the ’60s, you may recall aluminum trees from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” In the special, Lucy told Charlie Brown to find the biggest aluminum tree possible for their Christmas play, “maybe painted pink.” It’s a nod to the stigma aluminum trees have taken on as the symbol of the commercialization of Christmas.
“Personally, I think Christmas is heavily commercialized anyway, and some of these traditions that we have that are strong traditions don’t necessarily directly pertain to the religious aspects. And that’s fine,” Kapler said. “So these are just different variations of people kind of modifying what Christmas means to them.”
The aluminum Christmas tree trend faded away after the ’60s, but Kapler said this had more to do with the popularity of customary decorations.
“It’s hard for something new to come into the traditional, Christmastime celebrations and decorations that we’ve had for 100-plus years… Nothing’s going to ultimately overtake a real Christmas tree with lights and ornaments and homemade ornaments, and bulbs and globes,” he said.
In addition to the “‘Tis the Season” exhibit, Kapler encourages students to go up a few floors to visit the “Odd Wisconsin” exhibit, which features almost 50 displays that help further the museum’s mission to tell stories about Wisconsin.
“[It’s] an exhibition of unusual and unexpected things and stories from the state’s history. Funny stories, scary stories, really powerful stories [and] creepy stories,” he said. “And they’re all tied together in that they’re somehow unusual [or] unexpected.”
One such exhibit in “Odd Wisconsin” includes a pink flamingo from the Pail and Shovel Party’s infamous prank in 1979, when party members blanketed Bascom Hill with over 1,000 lawn ornaments. Other notable displays include a diary from the Lewis and Clark expedition and a closer look at the history of Capitol Square.
Although he admitted students don’t account for a large percentage of the museum’s visitors, Kapler said students should drop by the Historical Museum for the “‘Tis the Season” exhibit simply to get into the Christmas spirit.
“[Students are] looking for things to do over break, and maybe they haven’t been to that museum before,” Kapler said. “They’ll learn a little bit about their state. But really, first thing’s first, these [trees] are cool things to look at.”
The “Tis the Season” exhibit will be at the Wisconsin Historical Museum through January 9.