The Evolution of Christmas: Photographs of Christmas Trees, early 1900s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

By the early 20th century, Christmas trees were much more commonly found in American household than in preceding decades and the ways in which they were decorated and displayed continued to evolve.

The Homestead’s collection includes photographs that show how this evolution took place and helps us to gain a better understanding of the transformation of the holiday over our interpretive period of 1830 to 1930.  Today’s post looks at some examples of photos taken in the first years of the 1900s of Christmas trees in homes.

Group with Christmas tree 1900s

An excellent example is the first image showing a group of nine adults having a card party next to a table-top Christmas tree.  Some of the men smoke cigars and a young man seated second from the left appears ready to deal cards to his fellow players, including a woman who seems to be looking back towards him with some bemusement!  Three women and a young man stand behind the table, perhaps in line for some food.

As for the tree, it looks to be a good six to seven feet tall and is gaily decorated with paper and glass ornaments.  The latter material was coming into greater use in recent years.  Other fun little details are notable, including the gas light ceiling fixture and the use of a picture rail, indicating that the house was likely of brick construction and framed works could not be hung on nails driven into the walls, but from wires hung from the rail near the very tall ceiling.

Baby Xmas tree 1900

The next photograph is a carefully staged one of an adorable toddler seated in a chair in front of a tree that is also placed on the floor–this marks the change from having those table-top trees that predominated through most of the 19th century.

The little one is surrounded by some open presents including a doll in a carriage, what looks to be either a suitcase or a picnic basket, and a boxed tea set, including the pot, cups and saucers and spoons.  The festive tree has some garland of beads, tinsel and perhaps popcorn; dolls as ornaments; poppers that we associate more with New Year’s Eve celebrations now; and more.

The scene looks to be set in a parlor close to pocket doors that divide the room from one that has an upright piano or organ, on which there are some open pieces of sheet music or song books.  A large window with some fine neoclassical molding and a framed work hung from a picture rail are also in view.

2 boys nr Xmas tree 1900s

Then, there’s another great photo showing a little guy, probably three or four years old standing next to a table-top tree much shorter than the one in the first image, while an older boy peeks out from behind an opening to the right.  A few presents are under the tree, including a stuffed animal and there are some on a shelf below the table top, such as another stuffed animal and a box with what may be dolls in it.  On the floor is a brown teddy bear and some other items.

As for decorations, they mostly appear to include a tinsel garland, a glass bead garland, and glass ornaments, though there is a hanging Santa at the back facing toward the wall, and some bells, as well.

This house appeared to have been wood-frame because framed images are attached directly to the walls and the room included a case filled with books and with knick-knacks, including a cat figurine, on the top, as well as a beautifully carved upright piano.

Xmas tree ca 1900

Finally, we have a very interesting and effusively decorated Christmas tree on the floor next to a set of stairs.  In this case, the tree has an abundance of tinsel, which grew in popularity to the point that, by the 1920s, it was common to nearly cover the tree in the decorative material.  Some glass bead garland and quite a few glass balls are also discerned along with many other hanging ornaments, but that tinsel is pretty dominant!

A dark wood table with a white square tablecloth is to the left and there are what appear to be open books and/or magazines on it, but check out that beautiful newel post for the stairs, also in a very dark wood and with what might be a figurine, perhaps even as a lamp atop it.  The rail and the treads are also dark, while the remainder of the stairs are in a bright white, providing quite a contrast.

Another set of early 1900s photos will form the basis of the next post in this series, so check back for that!


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