Pictures of decorated Christmas trees from the early to mid-20th century often include many silver tinsel icicles hanging from the branches. While those icicles may appear to be aluminum, they contained lead and tin and originated many centuries before their popularity in America. The iconic Christmas tinsel has an interesting history.
Decorating the Tree
Families hung the lights on the trees, followed by the Christmas tree ornaments. The icicles and tree topper appeared on the tree as the crowning touch. Families might hang each icicle one at a time, making sure they didn’t tangle or tear in the process. Icicles were hung from almost every branch, creating a dazzling display to reflect the Christmas lights. The combination of tin and lead that kept these decorations suspended on the tree branches helped keep them neat and crisp year after year. Since the tinsel was sturdy and wouldn’t break when dropped, the entire family could participate in this final decorative stage. Each family member placed the silver streamers on the limbs they could reach.
Twisted Metal Icicles
In the 1930s and 40s, the Venus Company manufactured a product called Diamond Ray Jeweled Icicles that were twisted metal with silver on one side and jewel tones of yellow, red, blue or green on the other side. The icicles had a small hole in one end with a gold-colored cord to hang them on the tree. These and other old-fashioned ornaments can often be found at antique stores. People who desire a vintage look in their holiday decor could incorporate these types of ornaments on their tree. Some people make their own jeweled icicles by cutting and twirling strips from discarded aluminum cans.
Aluminum Christmas Trees
In 1959 the Aluminum Specialty Company produced an aluminum tree that was marketed as a permanent tree. With all the branches manufactured exactly the same, the tree was easy to assemble, but it did not look natural. Within a few years, other manufacturers produced aluminum trees that came in a few assorted colors. Manufacturers discouraged the use of strings of lights because of the potential for electrical shock. The aluminum tree fad lasted less than 10 years, ending when consumer demand changed to trees that looked more natural.
Lametta tinsel, forerunner of the tin and lead icicles, originated in Germany sometime in the middle of the 17th century. The Germans made the original lametta out of thin strips of real silver, but it tarnished easily when exposed to the candle fire popular in early Christmas trees. The Germans experimented with pewter icicles, but this option had its own problems, including the weight of the strands and the duller color. The icicles came in a few colors, but most were silver. By the 20th century, tin and lead were incorporated into icicles. In 1971, the FDA banned the manufacture of lead and tin icicles, and it banned the sale of the items the following year.
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