Books

Christmas at Midcentury, When Aluminum Trees Replaced Victorian Evergreens

A new book by Sarah Archer explores the influence of the Space Race and Cold War on America’s midcentury Christmas celebrations.

A miniature aluminum Christmas tree with vintage Shiny Brite ornaments (both late 1950s to early 1960s) (photo by Jeffrey Stockbridge)

Post-World War II American prosperity combined with the sprawl of the new suburbs contributed to Christmas holidays that were optimistic celebrations of the future, rather than nostalgic tributes to the past. Cards depicted Santa Claus riding in a spaceship, while tree toppers were shaped like atomic bursts. And that tree didn’t look quite as green as it once had, in fact it gleamed a radiant silver with new aluminum designs.

Cover of Midcentury Christmas: Holiday Fads, Fancies, and Fun from 1945 to 1970 (courtesy the Countryman Press)

Midcentury Christmas: Holiday Fads, Fancies, and Fun from 1945 to 1970 by Sarah Archer (a Hyperallergic contributor), out now from the Countryman Press, explores this era of Yuletide change. In the book, she points out that Christmas traditions were on the whole Victorian, even into the 1940s, and with candles in trees or roasting chestnuts evoked an idealized old world.

“So what’s fascinating is that in the Space Age, suddenly the focus shifts from the past to the future, and Santa — as well as his Soviet counterpart, Grandfather Frost — dabbles in space flight and delivers scientific toys and the trappings of domestic bliss, like the Easy-Bake Oven, to Cold War kids,” Archer told Hyperallergic. “It reflects the values of the time — on the one hand excitement mixed with anxiety about the Space Race and atomic energy— and a robust excitement for home ownership and decor back on Earth.”

“It’s Christmas Again,” print advertisement for the Airlines of the United States (1945) (courtesy Airlines for America)

This was in many ways the golden age of the “American Dream,” when that meant single family homes packed with the latest appliance gadgets. An advertisement from 1963 boasts of “gifts you couldn’t give before” like an electric knife and self-dialing phone. Another from 1957 from the General Telephone System encourages readers to “give that new and different gift,” namely a “telephone in color.” In 1966, for the first time, you could watch the Yule log burn on your TV set. Even with consumerism on the rise, DIY crafting filled the pages of popular magazines, such as aluminum foil snowmen and handmade paper ornaments to place alongside your Shiny Brites, the first glass ornaments to be produced in the United States.

Paul Rand’s illustration for El Producto Cigars, “Santa’s favorite cigar” (1953-54), offset lithograph on paper (courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum/Art Resource, New York, photo by Matt Flynn)

However, Archer pointed out that not everyone was experiencing this affluence. “We have a President-elect who invokes this time period as a paragon of prosperity, even as we know, or should know, that the once-in-a-millenium confluence of war, government spending, technological innovation, and politics that made the 1950s and ’60s middle class boom possible can’t be replicated, and indeed shouldn’t be replicated exactly as it occurred the first time, because women and people of color were shut out of many of its benefits,” she said.

Yet the widespread interest in science and technological experimentation, as seen in the chemistry set gifts for kids and new electric contraptions for adults under the tree, may be worth recapturing. “I have the sense that it’s not an accident that midcentury design is so pervasive in the retail landscape and on screen,” Archer stated. “The optimism it evokes is pretty irresistible, and we could sure use a big dose of it right now.”

Photograph from House Beautiful (1961) (courtesy Hearts Communications, Inc.)
“Gifts you couldn’t give before,” from House Beautiful (1963) (courtesy Hearst Communications, Inc.)
Instructions for crafting an aluminum snowman and table decorations, Alcoa Aluminum Newsletter (December 1967) (courtesy Aluminum Company of America Records, Detre Library & Archives)
Pages from Midcentury Christmas: Holiday Fads, Fancies, and Fun from 1945 to 1970 (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Pages from Midcentury Christmas: Holiday Fads, Fancies, and Fun from 1945 to 1970 (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Photograph from House Beautiful (1961) (courtesy Hearts Communications, Inc.)
American Christmas card (1957), gold stamp on paper (courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum/Art Resource, New York)
Etch A Sketch (1960), Ohio Art co. (courtesy the Strong National Museum of Play)
Patent for the Slinky by Richard T. James (filed January 28, 1947) (courtesy United States Patent and Trademark Office)
Advertisement for Cosco Metal Furniture (1958) (courtesy Ameriwood Industries, Inc. DBA Cosco Home and Office Products)
Advertisement for General Telephone System (1957) (courtesy the Countryman Press)
A young woman in a studio setting surrounded by toiletries and perfume gifts on and around an aluminum Christmas tree (1964) (courtesy Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Midcentury Christmas: Holiday Fads, Fancies, and Fun from 1945 to 1970 by Sarah Archer is out now from the Countryman Press.

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