Wis.-made aluminum Christmas trees shine again
MADISON, Wis. (AP — Lucy Van Pelt coveted one in the Peanuts Christmas special. So did apparently a million people who bought an Evergleam to turn their living room into a space-age winter wonderland.
Like a TV antenna’s wad of tinfoil magically coming to life, aluminum Christmas trees sparkled and glowed in living rooms and front windows during their heyday in the 1960s and ’70s. No need to traipse out to a tree lot and wrestle one home tied to the car roof. No needles littering the carpet. No need to worry about the family dog drinking out of the stand.
Then, like any fad, they wore out their yuletide welcome and were forgotten in attics, tossed out in the trash or sold at garage sales for 50 cents.
Now, they’re hip again in a retro “Mad Men” way. And sought after. Some aluminum Christmas trees are selling for $1,000 on eBay, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (http://bit.ly/17UUNR8) reported.
Tapping into nostalgia for a time when Christmas trees looked as silvery and shiny as an astronaut, the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum opened an exhibit Nov. 26 featuring 20 Wisconsin-made aluminum trees.
Billed as the largest public exhibition of Evergleam aluminum Christmas trees, the exhibit will include rare 2-foot tabletop trees, a selection of 4-, 6- and 8-foot aluminum trees, accessories such as rotating tree stands and multicolored light wheels as well as advertising and packaging. The exhibit also includes trees in gold, green and even pink — the holy grail of Evergleams. Because few people bought pink trees, few were made, which now makes them very rare and valuable.
“I’m pretty sure this is the largest collection of Evergleams since a 1960s Christmas tree show,” said curator Joe Kapler, who hasn’t seen a pink Evergleam come on the market since 2005.
Manufactured by Manitowoc-based Aluminum Specialty Co., which made housewares and toys, Evergleam trees were designed to be light enough for women to lift boxes containing the stand, a wood pole covered in aluminum foil, 90 to 100 branches in paper sleeves and a colored light wheel. Adorned with the phrase “Aluminum For Lasting Beauty,” the package proclaimed them the “safety tree” because they were nonflammable.
Maybe it’s odd that a state with a ready supply of the real deal — Wisconsin is sixth nationally with 950,000 evergreens cut and sold each year — would be the leader in tannenbaums so fake they make no pretense of resembling anything that grows in nature. But that’s what happened.
A Chicago company came up with the idea and began manufacturing aluminum trees in 1958. However, Aluminum Specialty already had lots of big customers, such as Sears, Woolworth’s and Montgomery Ward, and when the Manitowoc firm started production in 1959, it quickly became the industry standard. Plus the Chicago company charged a steep $75 for a 4-foot tree. Evergleams flew off the shelves at 10 and 25 bucks a pop.
Aluminum Specialty “experimented with all kinds of new products every year, and it just exploded,” said Kapler. “They were kind of like the Coca-Cola of aluminum Christmas trees.”
Jerry Waak was working for Aluminum Specialty in 1959 when the company’s engineering department came up with a working model, which was displayed at that year’s New York toy show. The response was good and the Manitowoc firm went out on a limb, quickly ramping up production of Evergleams, scheduling round-the-clock shifts and filling a new 100,000-square-foot warehouse with aluminum trees.
“From the first year to the second year, sales increased four times. People, once they see it, they were like, ‘Hey, we want one of those, too,'” said Waak, 83, who still lives in Manitowoc. “Originally we thought if we did three years, we’d get our money back.”
Demand stayed strong and over a dozen years Aluminum Specialty churned out more than a million Evergleams. They were relatively easy to put together, taking 10 to 15 minutes, because branches could be stuck in any hole on the base. In fact, the boughs of finely cut foil were derived from tiny strips of metal called chaff dropped by World War II planes to scramble enemy radar.
Like any fad, aluminum trees ran their course, and Aluminum Specialty stopped making them in the early ’70s. In the last decade, surely fueled in part by the enduring affection for “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” they’ve become cool again.
Because of the state connection, the Wisconsin Historical Society began collecting them in 2004 and put together a small display at its museum on Madison’s Capitol square in 2005. The last exhibit was four years ago. This is the first time 20 of the trees will be displayed.
“We’ve been collecting trees over the years because it’s a unique Wisconsin story and they’re really popular. People love to see them,” said exhibit designer Doug Griffin.
Waak, who spent 25 years with Aluminum Specialty before it closed in the late ’90s, donated a few items from his personal collection for this year’s exhibit. He’s flabbergasted to see something that sold for $10 half a century ago now in a museum.
“If you would have said that to us back in 1959,” Waak said, “we would have said ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about!'”