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Holiday retro: A host of Christmas past

Kenny Kemp
Shiny aluminum trees contrasted sharply with traditional green Christmas trees when they were introduced in the 1950s. This vintage tree takes center stage in a display at Purple Moon, a Quarrier Street shop that sells mid-20th-century modern items.
Chris Dorst Vintage Christmas decorations available at the South Charleston Antique Mall include plastic Santas, old-style window candles, tree light reflectors and figurines.
Kenny Kemp Holiday tablecloths, napkins and aprons featured both traditional and contemporary designs. Starburst ornaments adorned futuristic trees. At Purple Moon.
Kenny Kemp Nearly every attic boasted boxes of Shiny Brite ornaments, mass-produced in the 1940s and '50s. Ornaments produced in wartime years had cardboard caps because of metal shortages, while later ones had metal caps. At Purple Moon.
Chris Dorst Many children poured milk into Santa mugs like these to leave with cookies for the big guy's Christmas Eve visit. At South Charleston Antique Mall.
Chris Dorst Comedian Jack Benny portrays Santa on the cover of this 1958 Christmas album of Dennis Day. At South Charleston Antique Mall.
Chris Dorst Tom and Jerry or Egg Nog punchbowls in milk glass were often manufactured before the mid-century, but they were hauled out of storage for later holiday celebrations and display. At South Charleston Antique Mall.
Chris Dorst Cups commemorate a 1950s visit to Santa's Land in Putney, Vt. At South Charleston Antique Mall.
Chris Dorst Firestone and Goodyear released annual Christmas albums starting in the 1960s. At South Charleston Antique Mall.
Chris Dorst Children spent hours assembling model cars, these based on cars sold in the 1960s. At South Charleston Antique Mall.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- They're dreaming of a retro Christmas.

Shoppers of a certain age who wander through holiday displays at vintage and antique shops nearly always say the same thing. "Awww. I remember those. My mom/grandmother had one."

The shelves and displays are full of decorations of Christmases past. Holiday décor from the 1950s and '60s particularly appeals to Baby Boomers who grew up during the era of tinsel icicles and futuristic aluminum Christmas trees and color wheels.

Shiny aluminum trees sparkle in the windows of Purple Moon on Quarrier Street, a store that features mid-century modern furniture and accessories. Owner Chuck Hamsher sells only trees made in the 1950s and '60s, not reproductions.

The signature trees were made from materials developed during World War II. "They were looking for new uses in postwar prosperity," Hamsher said. Production started in the mid-1950s. As they gained popularity, Aluminum Specialty Co. in Wisconsin churned out thousands of the Space Age trees, retailing for about $25 each.

Hamsher sells the vintage shiny trees for between $125 to $400. A 7-foot pink aluminum tree produced in the mid-century recently sold on eBay for $3,600.

"They've gained popularity in the past 10 years or so," Hamsher said. "They remind Baby Boomers of their childhoods."

Safety concerns prohibited traditional strings of electric lights on the trees' metal structures, but a well-aimed light and rotating color wheel illuminated the shiny branches.

A Christmas special that aired in 1965 is credited with the downfall of the aluminum trees. After Charlie Brown lamented the commercialization of Christmas in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," sales of the aluminum trees plummeted. Fresh or artificial green trees resurged in popularity and the "Tin Tannenbaums" were considered tacky.

Whether fresh or aluminum, many trees sported a mixture of traditional ornaments made before World War II, newer, more durable plastic ornaments and brightly colored bulbs mass-produced by companies like Shiny Bright. Strings of bubble lights and lights set in foil flowers replaced strings of large colored bulbs.

NASA's first manned flight in 1961 and the development of the atomic bomb inspired Space Age themes and designs in everything from ornaments to serving pieces.

Pre-electronic toy lists

Boys spent hours setting up battlefields with the legions of inexpensive green plastic army men. They strategically positions tiny football players on a field that vibrated and moved the players arbitrarily. Larger-scale Tonka trucks provided outdoor dirt-moving fun.

Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots came out in 1964. Everyone had a favorite, red or blue, and relished the sound of the opponent's head as it was knocked off. Repeated pushing of the button that operated the Robot's fighting arms often resulted in sore thumbs.

GI Joe, the original action figure introduced in 1964, offered a more palatable option for boys who didn't want to "play with dolls." The adventures, missions and fights that GI Joes endured at the hands of young boys made the scalps of many of the orange-haired versions look a little mangy.

Colorforms plastic adhesive toys, Play-Doh modeling compound and Etch A Sketches inspired creativity for both girls and boys.

Many girls wanted a Tiny Tears or Chatty Cathy doll for Christmas. Tiny Tears' face contained holes on either side of her nose that emitted tears when the doll's abdomen was squeezed. Chatty Cathy lived up to her name with a vocabulary of 11 phrases she would utter when a ring on a string in her back was pulled.

As children grew up, so did their doll habits. Mattel introduced Barbie, the original adult-figured doll, in 1959. Ken, her make-believe boyfriend hit the market in 1961. The construction of sturdy cardboard kitchens confounded many parents who put them together late on Christmas Eve.

Whole families gathered around their television sets to watch "The Little Drummer Boy," "The Littlest Angel," "A Charlie Brown Christmas," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," and "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," all released in the 1960s.

When they munched on holiday party food, it was often made with pre-packaged foods with international influences, partially as a result of returning GIs who tasted ethnic foods when stationed abroad. Chex Mix and onion dip, due largely to Lipton's introduction of dried onion soup mix in 1952, were popular. Dried beef cheese balls, cocktail wieners, devilled eggs, cheese puffs, stuffed celery and fondue might have been on the party menu.

Adult guests might have washed it all down with a Manhattan, martini, old-fashioned or Tom Collins. Children could have been served Tang, the powdered orange drink marketed as a Space Age treat.

Most people would have found their way to church services at Christmas. About half of Americans polled in the mid-century said they attended services regularly, but that number soared at Christmas, as it does today.

Other trends continue, or resurface, today as middle-aged consumers revisit the holidays of their youths and younger people appreciate the holiday icons of an optimistic period in American history.

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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