How many of these decorative touches do you remember (or still have stashed in the attic)?
1. READER'S DIGEST CHRISTMAS TREES
Old issues of Reader’s Digest are the Tribbles of the magazine world; left alone on a shelf or in a box they just seem to multiply on their own. This readily available supply of paper made for an inexpensive and time-consuming craft project that kept kids busy enough to give their teacher a breather for an hour or so. By laboriously double-folding each page of the magazine into an isosceles triangle, then gluing the front and back covers together, you could create a small, table-top Christmas tree. Then the real fun began: the decorating. With no restrictions on the amount of spray paint and glitter that could be used, the end result sometimes seemed reflective enough to deflect laser beams.
2. IBM WREATHS
Remember the early days of computing, when we saved data on floppy disks? Those old dinosaurs were positively futuristic compared to the standard storage medium of the 1950s—punch cards. Regularly (and generically) referred to as “IBM cards,” they were often disposed of most carelessly, despite the sensitive information they contained. (Of course, back then not many average folks had access to a UNIVAC, so identity theft was not a major consideration.)
Used IBM cards were plentiful (and free) in the 1960s and '70s, so fashioning Christmas wreathes out of them helped to keep tons of paper out of landfills. Cynical types at the time were able to find a deeper meaning in such decorations, such as encroaching faceless technology replacing traditional warm holiday cheer, but most of us just enjoyed transforming someone’s free discards into a pretty floral spray.
3. GOD'S EYES
These colored yarn decorations were fairly easy and fun to make, and were frequently an art class school project. Of course, before you could actually start wrapping your sticks in earnest, you always had to first sit through a brief history lesson on the Ojo de Dios and its spiritual connotations in Mexico. Kids still make a variation of these in school and Cub Scouts today, but odds are they don’t use the same type of sticks to construct them as those that were handed out back in the day—pointy wooden skewers that could take an eye out quicker than a Red Ryder BB gun. In some regions, those short wooden lances were called “city chicken sticks,” as they were primarily sold for the purpose of concocting this Midwestern delicacy. As such, and out of necessity, they were sharp enough to easily pierce through large chunks of pork and veal, and God’s eyes never failed to stab you in the hand when unpacking the boxes of Christmas decorations every year.
4. C6 CHRISTMAS LIGHTS
Decorative electric lights have been available since the 1880s, but for many years they were so expensive that they were only seen on trees in wealthy homes and/or town squares. General Electric debuted the C6 ("C" for “conical” and "6" to indicate the diameter of the bulb) tungsten filament straight fluted lamps in 1924. Mass-produced in a variety of colors and popularly priced, the C6 became the de facto holiday decor for both indoor and outdoor use until it went out of production in the mid-1970s. The C6 had its drawbacks, however; the lights worked on a series circuit, meaning if one bulb burned out, the whole string went dark. In many homes, parents uttering a few curse words while going bulb by bulb down a line of darkened lights with increasing frustration, trying to find the faulty one, was as much of a holiday tradition as hanging stockings by the chimney with care.
5. ALUMINUM TREES
Who would’ve thought that the “space-age” tree of the 1960s that sold for pennies on the dollar at garage sales in the '70s and '80s would become a pricey collectible in the 21st century? The first aluminum Christmas trees were manufactured in 1959 and were not branded as “artificial” trees, but rather “permanent” ones. Busy families didn’t have to worry about hauling a live tree home from the lot and sweeping up fallen needles on New Year’s Day, and assembling the silvery wonder was a group activity that was fun for the whole family. Since electric lights presented a shock hazard on a metal tree, the twinkling color effect was accomplished instead by a rotating color wheel.
6. WINDOW STENCILS
With the magic of Glass Wax, you too could make your home a Window Wonderland—just like the fancy department stores downtown! Those stores, of course, had professional window cleaners to polish the stuff off when the holidays were over. Most parents weren't quite so lucky.
7. MELTED PLASTIC POPCORN DECORATIONS
Properly called “Glitter Plaques,” these holiday decorations were made for over 50 years by the Kage Company of Manchester, Connecticut. The decorative application for the polyethylene pellets came about quite by accident (their official use was to make PE envelopes for bank passbooks and other important documents). The company founder’s daughter was home sick from school one day in the 1950s and started playing with the boxes of colored PE pellets her dad had left at home. She made a chicken shape, baked it on a cookie sheet, and—voilà—a new product line was born. The plaques were sold at W.T. Grant and Woolworth stores throughout the 1960s and '70s and were also popular fundraising items for the Boy and Girl Scouts. Sales eventually dwindled to the point where Kage ceased production of the plaques in 2008.
The Atlantic Mold Company patented its A-64 Christmas tree mold in 1958 and went on to sell thousands of copies to ceramic shops across the country. Their sales peak was in the 1970s, when ceramics classes were all the rage. Atlantic molds tended to last for more casts than other brands, and the A-64 was the only tree mold that automatically made the topmost hole.
The original Shiny Brite glass ornaments were handmade in Germany and imported by Max Eckardt & Sons in New York beginning in 1920. When World War II was on the horizon, Eckardt sensed that importing glass from Europe would be problematic, so he partnered with Corning Glass to mass produce the decorations. Corning used a modified version of the machine that had previously made glass light bulbs to blow the glass balls and then a separate machine “silvered” them (inside and outside, for extra shine) and then lacquered them. When the War caused silver shortages, the plain glass balls were instead painted with pastel colors. Eckardt stopped producing glass ornaments by the 1970s and sold the Shiny Brite name in 1974.
An earlier version of this post appeared in 2013.