Sunday, December 19, 2004

It was once the tarnish-proof titan of Space Age America: Behold, the aluminum Christmas tree, gleaming in the glow of a rotating color wheel.

Now, the aluminum tree is back. The frilled, fireproof, silvery centerpiece of the season — guaranteed to be “the talk of your neighborhood” in the 1963 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog — again graces our family celebrations.

“I’ve already sold out of them twice and am working on a third time,” says Steve Colby, proprietor of Off the Deep End, a Maryland-based novelty company.

“They have a place in people’s heart. They’re tacky, they’re cool, they’re fun,” he says of the aluminum Christmas trees. “They appeal to people who remember them or who imagine they remember them, at least.”

Mr. Colby’s company sells the trees in three sizes, priced from $35 to $150, with the obligatory four-color, revolving color wheel thrown in for another $50.

But that’s cheap.

The gadget retailer Hammacher Schlemmer offers the high-end version: $420 for a 7-foot tree with hardwood trunk and “noncorrosive high-quality aluminum foil branches,” which would be picture-perfect in any post-atomic bachelor pad.

Minnesota-based manufacturer Yuletide Expressions, meanwhile, offers “nostalgic aluminum Christmas trees” in seven sizes, beginning at about $300.

“Think Sputnik, think astronauts. The aluminum tree is an icon of an era, all Space Aged and clean looking,” says Stephen Jackson, curator of the North Carolina-based Aluminum Tree and Aesthetically Challenged Seasonal Ornament Museum — “ATOM,” for short.

ATOM claims to be the world’s only arty spot devoted to the glories of the silvery trees. The museum has 57 in its collection.

Aluminum trees are high concept here: Mr. Jackson gleefully sells little packets of aluminum pellets as “tree seeds” and catalogs the names of 1960s tree manufacturers with relish. There was the old Holi-gay Mfg. Co. of Chicago, for instance, and the Aluminum Specialty Co. of Manitowoc, Wis., which offered an 8-foot “Evergleam” tree in silver, pink and gold.

None of the 37 companies that originally crafted the metallic marvels is still in business. They faded into obscurity as America’s taste for such things waned about 1970.

The appreciation of aluminum trees resurfaced for a variety of reasons.

“There’s a real honesty of materials at work here. Aluminum does not pretend to be evergreen,” Mr. Jackson says. “People love these trees because they remember them from Mom’s or Grandma’s, but there’s a whole generation now that loves them because they are so thoroughly retro.”

Indeed, Mr. Jackson and his staff of 40 eager volunteers heed the advice from “Conny of Alcoa,” the official home-design hostess of the Aluminum Company of America, circa 1961.

“Decorated with plain ornaments and inexpensive spotlights, aluminum trees develop a spectacular ethereal beauty,” Conny counseled in a booklet boasting photos of bouffant-haired women in shirtwaist dresses and stiletto heels, earnestly intent on their aluminum trees.

Those who crave an original tree can find them in kitschy antique shops or for sale on the Internet, where several dozen may be available at any given moment, priced around $50 and up.

“Some of the new re-creations may not be as heavy as the old aluminum trees,” says Mr. Colby, the dealer, “but I’ll tell you, my wife and I have an original aluminum tree, and there’s nothing quite like it.”

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