When my mom and her sister think back to their early Christmases, growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they remember the aluminum Christmas trees.
“The pink one in the dining room on the table had angels on it. The one in the bar in the furnished basement was a 6-foot gold with felt apples. And the one in the living room was an 8-foot silver tree with a shining light. And we took a 2-foot one into the classroom every year,” says my mom, Jeanne Silver, mentally ticking through the artificial forest.
That's because their father—my grandfather—Thomas A. Gannon, or Tag, as we called him, is the man who found a way to mass market the aluminum Christmas tree. And his own house, in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, was, of course, incredibly well adorned.
My aunt, Jo Anne Crider, is beaming through the phone as she remembers the trees. “Our home was a Dutch Colonial that had two nice-sized picture windows, one in the dining room, one in the living room, so we had a tree in each,” she says. “When you stood out in front of the house at the end of the sidewalk, it was absolutely magical.”
Tag was the sales manager at Aluminum Specialty Company, a business based in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, that sold kitchen items and toys, many of which were mini kitchen items. My Aunt Jo Anne, in fact, served as a model with one of the company’s tea sets, appearing in a toy magazine when she was a child.
My grandfather traveled frequently to Chicago, and in the late ‘50s, he was walking by a Ben Franklin retail store when a bright silver metallic Christmas tree, made by Modern Coatings, Inc. caught his eye. He loved the tree, but after one look at the price tag, he knew it was too expensive to ever become popular in homes across America.
A sales man through and through, Tag had an idea. In recent years, he’d been traveling back and forth to Hong Kong and Japan, meeting with manufacturers. If he could get someone abroad to produce the aluminum trees and then ship them back to Wisconsin, he could save a great deal of money and make a shiny tree that was affordable for families everywhere. Soon after, the Evergleam Aluminum Christmas Tree was born.
According to the Wisconsin Historical Society (which has an Evergleam Aluminum Christmas Tree display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison, Wisconsin through January 11, 2014) the Evergleam tree was a huge hit at the annual American Toy Fair in New York in 1959. Throughout the ‘60s, major retailers such as Montgomery Ward, Ben Franklin and Woolworths stocked the tree, and more than 1 million sold, with sales peaking in 1964 and 1965. Color choices expanded from the original silver to include gold, green, blue and pink. Throughout the ‘60s, if you had an aluminum tree, odds are it came from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, which cornered 60 to 65 percent of the market in the U.S and Canada.
Of course, not everyone embraced the spindly tree. Throughout Manitowoc, and across the country, it’s fair to say that camps took sides on whether the tree was beautiful or not so beautiful. In fact, my mom will be the first to tell you she lived in a household divided.
“I wanted a real one. I did. There was no great love, personally, of aluminum Christmas trees. They were there, they provided a wonderful living, and we were reminded that we were living well because of these trees,” she says. “I was actually told at one point if I wanted something that smelled like pine, they had it in a can. I mean, this is in the state of Wisconsin, which grows a fair number of Christmas trees.” (My mom would go on to become a committed purchaser of fresh trees throughout much of my childhood.)
My aunt is more nostalgic about the aluminum trees. She loved the color wheel lights that cast revolving hues on the trees, she loved standing outside in the snow, looking in at the magical scene and she loved the family honor behind the trees. Still, she recalls a sense of longing when smelling the fresh-cut boughs that friends had. “It was hard for us, because very few families in Manitowoc had them. We were a little different, and that bothered me at times, because I didn’t like being different. But then, you listened to my dad, and you couldn’t help but be tickled by the pride in what he and his company had accomplished.”
As the ‘60s became the ‘70s, the neon-hues of the Evergleam faded, replaced by other Christmas tree trends—fiber optic Christmas trees, frosted Christmas trees, upside down Christmas trees. The Evergleam was gone, but not forgotten. In the early 2000s, the aluminum Christmas tree started having a resurgence, which remains, today (a number of Evergleam trees are available on eBay).
My grandfather had the pleasure—and, frankly, shock—of seeing the trend rise again before he passed away in 2005. He interviewed with reporters a couple of times, telling stories about the history of the tree. My aunt remembers talking with him about it. “He was laughing, because whoever called to interview him was talking about ‘retro.’ He was giggling, because he didn’t look at himself as being that old. It had been 40 or 50 years, but he wasn’t looking at it as another generation would look at it. He just thought it was funny,” she says.
Today, there’s only one person in my family who has an aluminum Christmas tree—my cousin, Liz, who is Jo Anne’s daughter, bought a silver one a few years ago. But I know that when the rest of us see a pink or blue or golden tree, we smile (well, maybe not my mom), and think about how this strange little artificial tree is so intertwined with our own family tree, filled with memories, awash in colors and brimming with stories to tell.