Victorian-era Germans loved their holiday traditions and they loved their forests. The live Christmas tree brought the two ideas into conflict. People wanted to put up a Christmas tree, but they were also concerned about deforestation. An artificial tree would be the answer, and the feather tree was invented.
A feather tree is made of feathers that are split and wrapped around wire "branches" in a way that makes the feather barbs spread out like pine or fir needles. Usually the feathers were from geese and were dyed green. The branches were spaced farther apart than they would be on a real tree to lessen the fire hazard inherent in using lit candles. This also made the tree idea for displaying ornaments. Feather trees were usually smaller, tabletop trees, though trees as tall as eight feet were available.
German immigrants brought the feather tree to the United States and it is said that Theodore Roosevelt helped to widely popularize the tree among Americans not of German ancestry. In order to promote conservation, Roosevelt declared that no live trees would be used in the White House. According to legend, a feather tree was set up in the White House to appease the Roosevelt children's desire for a Christmas tree.
In England with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, many Victorian customs also died with her, including for many, the large, ornate Victorian High Style live Christmas tree. The smaller tabletop feather tree took its place for many years.
By 1913, feather trees were offered in the Sears Roebuck catalog. Eventually white, lavender, and gold trees were offered along with green, but green was always the most popular color. These trees were made in Germany, but importation of the trees stopped due to World War II and the popularity of the trees declined as abundant live trees from tree farms because available. Feather trees enjoyed a small revival in the 1950s, possibly due to the resemblance of the trees to Charlie Brown's Christmas tree in the popular "A Charlie Brown Christmas" story, but trees made of a plastic called visca and metal trees where the artificial trees of choice in that era.
Feather trees experienced another revival starting in the 1980s that continues to this day. Of course antique trees are available but modern trees in a wide assortment of colors are also being made. The Internet lists a number of sources, including trees made in the United States. Kits for making a tree yourself are also available.
If properly stored, feather trees can last for over 100 years. Trees should be stored away from heat and dampness. In other words, do not keep them in the attic, basement, garage, or outside shed. They can be cleaned by gently blowing the branches with a hairdryer set on low speed with no heat. Though historically, lit candles were used on feather trees, this is not recommended.
Feather trees were the first artificial Christmas tree. They were created out of necessity but are now loved in their own right. A genuine antique or a modern reproduction can be a part of your Christmas festivities, too.
Thumbnail photo: A replica of a 19th century feather tree, This image was originally posted to Flickr by a2gemma at http://flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/312233872. It was reviewed on 29 March 2009(2009-03-29) by the FlickreviewR robot and confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 19, 2011. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)