The Evolution of Christmas: Photographs of Christmas Trees from the 1920s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This concluding entry from this year’s series of posts on “The Evolution of Christmas” takes our extended look at changes in the use and decoration of Christmas trees to the 1920s, the end of the Homestead’s interpretive period of 1830 to 1930.

We have a quintet of great photographs from the Homestead’s collection to highlight, starting with a 1921 snapshot of two young men, sporting some formal clothing on Christmas Day as they stand at attention next to the tree.  It has tinsel and what looks like popcorn garland, hanging glass and paper ornaments, a bit of tinsel, and a horn among other decor.

Two Photos Of Boys With A Christmas Tree And Toys 2008.257.1.1b

The older boy, looking to be about eight years old or so, grasps one end of the handlebars of a new bicycle.  His younger brother, probably about age four, stands next to what looks like some clothes and a drum, topped with Tinker Toys and both sitting on a stand that almost looks like a pottery wheel.  Books, a tin toy canister and other presents are also in view.

The family appears to have been pretty well-to-do, judging by the home’s interior, including a large sideboard with a mirror and a very tall fireplace with a wood mantel and some kind of stone hearth.  Paper bells also hang from the three-light chandelier and other details of note include a high wainscoting, wallpaper above that, and lace curtains on the window behind the tree.

Christmas Tree In A Home 2008.342.1.1

From 1927 is a view of a Christmas tree, absent of any people gathered around it, but with plenty of opened presents beneath it.  It’s hard to see details of what the gifts are, but, because none of them have the appearance of being toys, these are likely clothing, accessories, household items and others typical of what adults would receive.

As for the tree, it looks somewhat like the one in the 1921 view and representative of what was popular at the time.  Garlands of tinsel and beads (or, perhaps, cranberries), glass balls, ornaments that look like wreaths and animals, and hanging strands of tinsel are observed.  The tree stands in front of a set of double doors with lace curtains and what looks like a side table at the left.

Two Girls With Christmas Presents Outside A Home 2010.304.1.1

Moving to the end of the decade as well as to the outdoors, the next photo is from 1929 and shows a pair of sisters standing on a brick walk with prized presents next to the tree.  It is assumed the tree was hauled out of the house and placed next to the porch steps because the brighter outdoors made for a better photo?  It has some tinsel and what looks like popcorn garland, some glass ornaments, and a large paper ornament of what could be Santa.

In any case, the girls, looking to be roughly ages eight and five, hold dolls and there are smaller items, like doll house furniture, a table set with a cloth and tea service, and a book.  Another item is a blackface doll, a reminder of how openly racist images of blacks were used in American society.

Negative Two Children And Toys Near A Christmas Tree 2012.528.1.

Two other images are not dated, but are certainly from the decade.  The first is a negative, which shows excellent clarity, that shows a sister and brother next to a tree in the corner of a living room or parlor in their home.

The girl, probably about seven or eight years old, sits on a chair and holds a doll in her lap.  Her brother, probably two or three years of age, sits with a truck inside a wagon, with a wooden box and metal handle, axles and wheels, and which is labeled “1000 Mile Road Test.”  The reference is to the fact that wagons like it were subjected to road tests, in which they were pulled behind an automobile for that distance to demonstrate their durability and craftsmanship, in imitation of road tests given for motor vehicles.

This 22 December 1929 ad for Montgomery Ward from a Missouri newspaper lists a “1000 Mile Road Test” Wagon like the one shown in the photo above for $5.39.

Only the bottom part of the tree is in view and note that it has something like a box with some skirting around it.  Quite a bit more tinsel is found on this tree than the others shown here and there are also glass and metal ornaments and tinsel garland.

Young Woman And Girl With Gifts By A Christmas Tree 2012.448.1.3

Finally, there is a great photo of two sisters next to the tree in the family’s well-appointed home.  The younger girl, perhaps nine years of age or so, sits on a sofa and holds a doll in her lap, while next to her is another doll in a wicker carriage.  The elder sister, who looks to be in her late teens, has her left hand at what might be a brooch or pendant for a necklace.  On the floor are a variety of gifts, one looking like a book, other are boxes and there may be cards in the middle.

Most of the tree is in view and it is heavily decorated, more so than the others above.  There is a good deal of beaded and glass ball garland, long strands hanging vertically the length of the tree of what may be tinsel, lots of glass balls of various designs, and a few other ornaments including a Santa, birds, and others.

What is missing from all of these, unless they blend in so well that they’re hard to spot, are electric lights, even in the homes shown here that look to have been owned by people who did well economically.  They were certainly available during the decade, though they were costly with strands of a dozen or so bulbs costing more than that wagon.

Still, it is apparent that much had changed from those simpler, smaller trees, with fewer ornaments and gifts dating back to the late 1840s that began this series.

Enjoy your Christmas tree this holiday and, looking ahead to next year’s yuletide season, the third run of “The Evolution of Christmas” will look at Christmas cards and how they changed over the decades prior to 1930.

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