It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas (1958)

October 26, 2008|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Millicent Jordan vividly recalls the first aluminum Christmas tree she ever purchased.

She was 22 years old when she saw the sad-looking little silver tree at a garage sale.

"It was marvelous," says Jordan, 38, of Forest Hill. "It came with a rotating color wheel that changed the hue of the tree. I was fascinated by it."

She purchased the tree - which she still owns - and 16 years later, it is part of a collection of vintage Christmas trees. Today, she is opening an exhibit at the Liriodendron featuring about 30 aluminum trees that are a kaleidoscope of colors, including green, blue, silver, blue and green, and pink. For the exhibit, the trees, ranging in height from 2 to 8 feet, are set up in color-themed rooms.

Aluminum trees were first made in 1958 by Modern Coatings Inc. of Chicago. From 1959 to 1969, more than 1 million aluminum trees, mainly the flagship tree called Evergleam, were produced by Aluminum Specialty Company, of Manitowic, Wis.

The trees were made using a thin painted wooden trunk with holes drilled into it at angles. When the branches made of colored aluminum foil were placed in the holes, they formed a tree shape.

These first trees could not be decorated with electric lights because of fire safety concerns. Although the aluminum foil branches shimmer brightly even without lights, the colors were enhanced with rotating color wheels.

To decorate the trees in the exhibit, Jordan uses vintage beaded ornaments and solid-colored balls that were popular in the 1950s. She also uses Jewel Bright plastic ornaments that she describes as hideously beautiful.

"The ornaments are just as aesthetically challenged as the trees," she says.

"To me, the aluminum trees were little marvels of technology," says Jordan, who founded an IT consulting company in 2001, called Z Squared. "The wheels were the microcosm of what people were striving for in the 1950s."

Today, her collection of trees includes olive wood, German feather and aluminum trees, she said.

Mary Mares, Jordan's mother, says she was with her daughter every step of the way as she built her collection.

"Her collection is eclectic, but once it's up, it's very beautiful," says Mares of Bel Air.

On a recent afternoon, Mares helped her daughter set up the exhibit. She pulled the branches out of the paper sleeves they are packed in and placed them in rows on the floor according to their height. Each tree took about 15 minutes to assemble.

While her mother prepped the branches, Jordan sorted through original boxes, placing the trees in rooms based on their color.

"I want to put large and small trees in every room," said Jordan as she walked from room to room looking at the trees. "The goal is to make it look like a forest of space age glory."

Most years, she begins setting up trees at her house around Labor Day, she says. She showcases new acquisitions as well as trees she's had for a long time. She puts up 10 to 100 each year, she says.

One year, she caused quite a stir when she set up a 9-foot white aluminum tree that she decorated with red lights, she says.

"It looked like my house was on fire from outside," says Jordan, who earned a bachelor's and master's degree from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

The average cost of a vintage silver-colored tree is about $15 per foot, and the pink trees are the rarest, she says. Jordan purchased her most prized tree - a rare 8-foot tall pink one - on eBay for about $1,400, she says.

It started with A Charlie Brown Christmas, a children's cartoon written in 1965 by Charles M. Schultz.

Although more than 1 million aluminum trees were made in the 1960s, sales began to decline in 1965 when Americans took to heart Charlie Brown's refusal to get a pink aluminum Christmas tree. In the story, Lucy tells Charlie Brown to "Get the biggest aluminum Christmas tree you can find. Maybe painted pink." But in the true spirit of Christmas, Charlie Brown refused.

Lucy's request sparked a desire in Jordan to do the same, she says. She searched for the biggest pink tree she could find and she bought it. The tree is one of the highlights in the pink room of the exhibit.

Through the years, Jordan says, she has paid between $2 and $1,400 for her trees, though the value of some is substantially more. Jordan purchases them from antiques shops, garage sales and eBay.

Everyone has a different response when they see them, she says.

About five years ago, she exhibited some of the trees at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

"Some people saw the trees and got nostalgic," she says. "Other people see them and laugh. It doesn't matter to me how people respond. You can't pick your passion, it picks you. Although some people see the trees and want to forget them, I want to show them to a new generation of people who have never seen one."

To go: The exhibit opens today and will be held at the Liriodendron, 502 W. Gordon St. in Bel Air, on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

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