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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Not only was the use and decoration of Christmas trees evolving quickly by the turn of the twentieth century, but so was the documentation of them by photography.  After all, the creation of the personal camera came along by about 1890s, though it was expensive and, therefore, limited to people of means.

As with new technology generally, however, refinements in the manufacturing and cost of the camera, the growing affluence of America as an emerging industrial and economic power, and the resulting burgeoning of the middle class, meant that cameras became more affordable and common as the new century dawned.

Christmas tree 1

So, it is not surprising to see an explosion of snapshots of all kinds, including portraits and “documentary” images of Americans noting their pride in their growing success and obtaining of material goods with photos of new cars and houses, for example.

Then with Christmas, folks began to document their Christmas trees, the growing numbers of presents, and the events and activities that surrounded the holidays.  Some examples were provided in the last post in this series, with some early 1900s snapshots showing people at a holiday party, and kids posed near Christmas trees (table-top and floor varieties included) with their presents.

Christmas tree and carriage

Here are a few more examples.  The first, of which we have one almost identical and then the another shown below, shows a tree that looks to have been newly decorated with a wide skirt (perhaps a sheet) and a piece of board on the floor.  Note that the bottom of the tree is wrapped and tied with what looks like ribbon.  There appears to be a small bag or box under the tree, as well.

As to decorations, there are plenty of garlands of beads and tinsel, the use of tinsel being not as heavy as one of the photos in the last post, and hanging glass ornaments including many balls, and a tree topper with a glass ball and pointed top.  It is interesting that this part of the room is very bare–perhaps furniture was moved for the installation of the tree.  We do see a radiator below a window at the left and a pipe (for water perhaps) going through the room from floor to ceiling.

Christmas tree and toys

The second photo gives us the same tree, but with a little more added to the scene.  For example, it looks as if the skirt has been pulled up and bunched together under the tree.  A carriage and a wicker armchair have been brought in and placed next to the tree, but were they gifts?

Notice, too, how, in the first image, bright sunlight was notable on the left side of the tree, but is more moderated in the second view.  It might be the way the photo was exposed, but could also be reflecting a different time of day for taking the second photo.  One more little detail is that some metal hardware on the side trim of an opening at the right (which in the first image looked like a window) actually shows it to be a lever for opening a transom above a door (note the hinges).

The next photo is of a tree, also on the floor, with a great deal of garland, including dark colored beads and lighter material, perhaps also beads; what could be long hanging tinsel or, more likely, glass beads, and a variety of hanging balls and other ornaments.

Christmas tree and bike

In this image, though, there are quite a few gifts under and near the tree.  These include a large doll partially in view at the right, a toy house, a toy table and chair set, a jar of something, a box, and what looks like an animal figurine and a Raggedy Ann or Andy figure.

Finally, our last photo has a nice compositional touch, with bright sunlight beautifully illuminating the tree and some of the presents near it.  These gifts include a tricycle, a doll in a rocking crib, a doll’s high chair, and a doll seated at a table with what looks like a tea service on it.  There may be some other toys on a table at the back right.

As for that tree, look at how wide-spreading the lower branches and needles are.  Ornaments are much like in the other photos, garland, tinsel and plenty of hanging glass balls and other items.

These views of Christmas trees from over a century ago help, again, show the evolution of the use and decoration of trees over time and we’ll conclude the series tomorrow with some examples from the 1920s.

One thought

  1. I am thoroughly enjoying your series on the evolution of Christmas. I had never before considered how the Homestead Museum interprets the exact time period when Christmas changed so much. Thank you for your postings.

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