Dumpster, Spare That Tree
By BRADFORD McKEE
Published: November 25, 2004
THE first aluminum Christmas trees that John Shimon and Julie Lindemann ran across nearly gave them hives.
Having settled here 15 years ago after various postgraduate wanderings, the two set out to furnish their house, an 1893 distillery building in the downtown of this faded Lake Michigan port. At rummage sales around town, they kept finding old aluminum trees that nobody wanted: silver trees, gold trees, trees the colors of candy canes. The trees, now considered the ultimate in Christmas camp by collectors, were made here in Manitowoc by the hundreds of thousands between 1959 and 1969.
“There was something off-putting about them,” Ms. Lindemann, 47, recalled in early November in the couple’s third-floor loft. The living room, furnished in Depression-era castoffs, attests to their talent for thrift shopping as did Ms. Lindemann’s all-black vintage outfit and cat-eye glasses. She looked ready for her Cecil Beaton moment.
“You’d see this kind of dirty stained box under a table of old tools,” she said, “and this is what it looks like.” She produced one such box and opened its flaps to reveal metallic limbs stored neatly in paper sleeves. “And you’d go, no, no,” she said, as if even their rummage-sale trolling had its limits. “Finally, we’re like, eh, O.K.”
Grudging acceptance turned to fascination. Mr. Shimon, 42, and Ms. Lindemann, both photographers, eventually bought 37 trees. In 1993, just for fun, they set up an “aluminum forest” in their drafty first-floor storefront gallery, reprising it over the next four Christmases. They of course had no idea that what had started as a minor obsession (and a way to use the unheated gallery in winter) would turn into a local phenomenon. The storefront displays drew carloads of curious people and attracted the news media. Now many in town have come to appreciate the aluminum tree’s place in Manitowoc’s history, which previously had seemed too recent to consider, Ms. Lindemann said. “It was just kind of taken for granted.”
Mr. Shimon and Ms. Lindemann, while teaching photography together at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., have assembled a short history of the aluminum Christmas tree and its Manitowoc roots in a new book, “Season’s Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree” (Melcher Media), out this month. The book contains their photos of their trees â€” twinkling limbs presented with deadpan cheer against mostly brightly colored backgrounds.
The trees’ vintage innocence seems worlds away from Mr. Shimon and Ms. Lindemann’s typical work, which includes dusky portraits of restless, often troubled locals and drifters as well as teenagers growing up on nearby dairy farms. They both grew up near Manitowoc, too. Their photography, Mr. Shimon said, is “about the place, which doesn’t have much to celebrate except that it was once industrial.”
Manitowoc, population 34,000, was once known as the aluminum cookware capital of the world. These days, though it revels in its status as the birthplace of the mass-produced aluminum Christmas tree, the town has just a fraction of the aluminum factory jobs it had a few decades ago.
Aluminum foundries flourished here after the Aluminum Manufacturing Company (later Mirro Aluminum) opened in 1895. After World War II big aluminum companies promoted their lightweight material as the answer to a household prayer, turning it into tableware, bakeware and furniture. Soon it came to grow on trees that would never die.
Entranced by the trees, Mr. Shimon and Ms. Lindemann began wondering about their history. They had only threads to go on until a crucial visitor stopped in at their storefront display. Richard Thomsen, who is now 80 and lives in Manitowoc, came by with his wife in 1995 and introduced himself as the former chief engineer at the Aluminum Specialty Company. He was working there in 1959, when the company began producing its first aluminum Christmas trees.
Mr. Thomsen had plenty of lore about those space-age days, Ms. Lindemann said. And in his living room in early November, Mr. Thomsen recalled a request in 1958 from the company’s sales chief to make an aluminum tree. He had seen handmade models in holiday displays at stores in Chicago.
“We thought we could do it for a reasonable price,” said Mr. Thomsen, who worked for Aluminum Specialty for 15 years.
The trees the sales chief had noticed were custom-made by a Chicago company, Modern Coatings, which held a patent on them. They sold for $75 to $85 for a six-foot tree, said Jerry Waak, 74, of Manitowoc, a salesman for Aluminum Specialty at the time. With a license from Modern Coatings, a new factory process and an assembly line of more than 40 people, mostly women, “we brought that down to $25,” Mr. Waak recalled.
Aluminum Specialty began making 100,000 to 150,000 Evergleam aluminum trees a year, selling them through stores like Ben Franklin, S. S. Kresge and Western Auto. They came in several colors and sizes, from a two-foot miniature to an eight-foot model that did not sell well.
“In the ranch-style home, very few had eight-foot ceilings,” Mr. Thomsen said.
Mr. Thomsen’s house could accommodate one, however, and at Christmas, his family gathers around a treasured eight-foot prototype. (A curator at the Wisconsin Historical Museum called Mr. Thomsen recently hoping to acquire the tree for the museum. “It’s not mine to give away,” he said. “I have three children who want it.”)
Mr. Waak said the trees’ popularity peaked in about 1964. “We said it was a three-year program, and it lasted 10 years,” he said.
Sarah Nichols, who as the chief curator of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, organized a traveling exhibition of aluminum designs in 2000, is the proud owner of a small aluminum conifer.
“I’m not surprised that ’59 was the year of the aluminum tree,” Ms. Nichols said. “In that time period you’ve got the whole ease-of-living concept. People didn’t want to go and cart a tree from somewhere and deal with needles falling down.”
By the time Mr. Shimon and Ms. Lindemann began collecting, the trees had largely been exiled to the attic of Christmas history. They usually paid less than $10 apiece for them and found some by placing trees-wanted advertisements on a local AM radio station that broadcast them without charge.
Now, more than 30 years after most families threw out their aluminum trees, they are making an unlikely comeback as collectors’ items. Prices have risen accordingly. On eBay recently most of the 6-foot, 46-branch Evergleam trees (considered the finest by aficionados, though there are other brands) were offered for less than $100. Plain-Jane Evergleams sell for $150 to $275 at www.aluminumchristmastrees.net, a Web site run by Charles Essmeier of Tooele, Utah.
Colored trees are far more expensive than silver models on the resale market, said Mr. Essmeier, 45. Last year he sold an eight-foot pink aluminum tree for $1,200; today he would not part with it for less than $2,000. “The pink ones are just preposterously rare,” he explained.
The December issue of Martha Stewart Living features a pink aluminum tree from Mr. Pink, 223 West 16th Street in Manhattan. Jerry Nixon, who owns the store, said he has one six-foot pink tree for $1,000. “I’ve seen them go for $1,700 on eBay,” he said.
The vintage tree crop dwindles just before Christmas. You can by new ones at stores like Hammacher Schlemmer; a five-footer will set you back $349.
As for Mr. Shimon and Ms. Lindemann, they are not terribly Christmasy. “I was just interested in the trees out of context, the idea that someone would want to make a tree out of metal,” Mr. Shimon said. “When we became a cute Christmas story, I said, `We’re just packing those things up.’ ” They have not exhibited the aluminum forest since 1997.
Earlier this year they unpacked the trees from a storage loft downstairs in their studio to photograph them for their book, which people in Manitowoc are embracing as an article of local pride. After Mr. Shimon and Ms. Lindemann attended a November book signing here, and a local newspaper featured the book, people approached Ms. Lindemann in the grocery store to share their stories of shift work on the aluminum-tree line.
“They’re joyous and proud of it,” she noted in an e-mail message. “Smiling ear to ear. Ten years ago there was an amnesia about those memories.”