Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Have a Retro Christmas

Last Thursday I attended the last of offering this year’s “History Sandwiched In” program series. John Shimon and Julie Lindemann, professional photographers and assistant professors of art at Lawrence University, presented a talk and slide show, with dual Carousel projectors, on what many people would consider the kitchiest – or worse – of Christmas artifacts: the aluminum tree.

They even wrote a book about it. Season’s Gleamings: the Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree. (With 12 pages of general text and 60 pages of photographs with the emphasis on “Art”.)

The aluminum tree was manufactured by the Aluminum Specialty Company, which was located in America’s other tinsel town, Manitowoc, Wisconsin. They first went on sale in time for the 1959 Christmas season, predating The Jetsons by three years. Sales peaked during the years 1961-1963, and production stopped six years later, no doubt to the great relief of some Christmas purists.

Shimon’s and Lindemann’s interest in this short-lived phenomenon led them to collect as many trees as they could get their hands on, although I think they said they stopped at 50. Their best sources were Manitowoc-area estate sales, where they purchased the trees at give-away prices. For five years running, they set up the trees, complete with rotating color wheels, rotating bases, and tinkling musical accompaniment, in their storefront gallery in Manitowoc. (Sorry I missed it, especially since we usually visit JoAnna’s parents in nearby Two Rivers on or around Christmas.)

Season’s Gleamings, published in 2004, contains 60 color photographs that show a variety of the aluminum trees to best effect. The authors’ training in commercial product photography is clearly obvious. They use their considerable skills to tell a narrative using as few props as possible. The frame of “Foot Message Christmas” (page 23), a study in red and white, includes a 7-foot tree against a solid red background with a fake fireplace, a pair of high-heeled shoes, and an electric foot massager -- the last two items "casually tossed aside" on the floor. Not exactly your all-American Christmas scene, but a very striking composition. Shimon and Lindemann are more interested in the aluminum tree as art object as opposed to historical artifact, although they show obvious appreciation for both aspects.

During their back-and-forth presentation, Lindemann speculated on why the aluminum tree was such a short-lived phenomenon. First of all, its gleaming, space-age design probably lost whatever charm it had in the years immediately following John F. Kennedy’s assassination. She then pinpointed what she felt was the beginning of its end: the influence of the phenomenally popular “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (not quite the way you remember it), originally broadcast by CBS on December 9, 1965. (It was the Peanuts gang first TV special.) The storyline includes Charlie Brown’s quest, with Linus joining him, to find the perfect Christmas tree to decorate for the play the kids are putting on. Lucy insists they have a “big shiny aluminum tree…maybe painted pink”, but Charlie Brown selects a small, nondescript tree, the only real one available.

(The irony, of course, is Charles Schulz taking anyone to task for commercialism rurn amok. Anyone who really remembers the 1960s and 1970s will recall that the Peanuts brand was relentlessly and ubiquitously hawked.)

As a result of their keen interest in aluminum trees, the City of Manitowoc is no longer embarrassed by its central role in their manufacture. In fact, it is now heartily embraced.

Collection development note: This afternoon I checked out the only copy of Season’s Gleamings in LINKcat.

Other links:
CA Modern Magazine, "Shimmering Nostalgia".
Metropolis Magazine, "al tannenbaum, al tannenbaum".

No comments: