WISCONSIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY

History of Evergleam

Online Exhibit

Scroll to discover the story of the Wisconsin-made Evergleam aluminum tree.

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Origins

Manitowoc — A Hotbed of Aluminum

In 1959, Manitowoc was home to two of the largest manufacturers of aluminum goods in the country. The Aluminum Specialty Company and the Mirro Aluminum Company (previously the Aluminum Goods Manufacturing Company) produced housewares and toys on a massive scale.

See historic images of the Manitowoc–Two Rivers area in this gallery of historic images.

Aluminum Specialty logo from a tag that accompanied a four-foot Evergleam aluminum Christmas tree, early to mid-1960s.

WHS Museum #2005.167.1.4

Mirro logo from a packet of Mirro Coffee Pot and Perk Cleaner, late 1950s to mid-1970s. WHS Museum #2007.57.3.1

Mirro logo from a packet of Mirro Coffee Pot and Perk Cleaner, late 1950s to mid-1970s.

WHS Museum #2007.57.3.1

In 1950, a large percentage of Manitowoc’s population (approximately 28,000) was engaged in metal manufacturing, producing everything from ships to pots and pans. The Aluminum Specialty Company’s manufacturing plant was located at center right. WHI Image ID 38392

In 1950, a large percentage of Manitowoc’s population (approximately 28,000) was engaged in metal manufacturing, producing everything from ships to pots and pans. The Aluminum Specialty Company’s manufacturing plant was located at center right.

WHI Image ID 38392

Innovation

Making a Good Idea Great

The Aluminum Specialty Company had been manufacturing aluminum holiday decorations for decades when they stumbled upon a new idea. In December of 1958, Aluminum Specialty toy sales manager Tom Gannon noticed a metal Christmas tree displayed in a Chicago Ben Franklin store. Modern Coatings Inc. of Chicago made the tree, but it was too expensive and bulky to be sold to a mass market. Gannon took the original tree back to Aluminum Specialty, and engineer Richard Thomsen led the effort to produce a better, cheaper version for the American Toy Fair in March of 1959. Thomsen’s team was successful, and the tree was well received by buyers. On a hunch, Aluminum Specialty produced hundreds of thousands of trees in time for the 1959 holiday season, and the gamble paid off as sales soared. In 1960, Aluminum Specialty branded their trees as Evergleams.

Richard Thomsen, lead engineer for the Aluminum Specialty Company, in his Manitowoc home with the original Evergleam, 1997. Photograph by J. Shimon and J. Lindemann
Richard Thomsen, lead engineer for the Aluminum Specialty Company, in his Manitowoc home with the original Evergleam, 1997. (Photograph by J. Shimon and J. Lindemann)
US Patent 2,893,149, issued to Clarence D. Reese and Nathan Paul of Modern Coatings Inc., July 7, 1959.
US Patent 2,893,149, issued to Clarence D. Reese and Nathan Paul of Modern Coatings Inc., July 7, 1959.

Modern Coatings had patented their tree trunk’s drill-hole angle, which allowed for branches of uniform length, as well as their easy-to-use paper sleeve that held the tree’s branches while it was in storage. Since Aluminum Specialty had greater aluminum manufacturing expertise and greater access to national markets than Modern Coatings, the two companies entered into a licensing agreement in the early 1960s.

Modern Coatings, Inc. aluminum Christmas tree, late 1950s (left), and Aluminum Specialty Company aluminum Christmas tree, 1959 (right). On the left is the type of tree that inspired the Aluminum Specialty Company of Manitowoc to get into the aluminum Christmas tree business. Made by Modern Coatings, Inc. of Chicago, its sale price was a little too high for mass market success. On the right is a tree made by the Aluminum Specialty Company in 1959. It was more economically produced than the tree made by Modern Coatings, Inc. and sold for less. Note that it is not yet branded as an “Evergleam.” Private collection

Modern Coatings, Inc. aluminum Christmas tree, late 1950s (left), and Aluminum Specialty Company aluminum Christmas tree, 1959 (right).

In the photograph above, on the left is the type of tree that inspired the Aluminum Specialty Company of Manitowoc to get into the aluminum Christmas tree business. Made by Modern Coatings, Inc. of Chicago, its sale price was a little too high for mass market success. On the right is a tree made by the Aluminum Specialty Company in 1959. It was more economically produced than the tree made by Modern Coatings, Inc. and sold for less. Note that it is not yet branded as an “Evergleam.” Private collection

Heyday

The Peak of the Evergleam

By the mid-1960s, sales for the Evergleam peaked. Nearly twenty other competitors began making aluminum Christmas trees, but due to innovative merchandising and Aluminum Specialty’s existing access to markets, the Evergleam brand was more popular than all the others combined. Most trees were purchased for the home, but others shone brightly in Main Street storefront windows across the country.

Why So Successful?

In a marketplace dominated by traditional holiday decorations, aluminum Christmas trees were an appealing novelty. They utilized new materials and had a clean, modern look. Aluminum Specialty never promoted their trees as “artificial.” They offered a simple, easy-to-use decoration that was strikingly different from its competition.

These two packages were used to house the very same product—a six-foot Evergleam tree. The cumbersome packaging in the image on the left, including two boxes with heavy wooden bases, was used during the first year of Evergleam production in 1959. The following year, Aluminum Specialty utilized paper sleeves that greatly reduced the size and weight of the tree's packaging, and they also introduced their trademark red and green holiday styling.
These two packages were used to house the very same product—a six-foot Evergleam tree. The cumbersome packaging in the image on the top, including two boxes with heavy wooden bases, was used during the first year of Evergleam production in 1959. The following year, Aluminum Specialty utilized paper sleeves that greatly reduced the size and weight of the tree's packaging, and they also introduced their trademark red and green holiday styling.
The traditional Christmas decorations sold in the Sears Wish Book, first published in 1934, contrasted sharply with the new look of aluminum Christmas trees and accessories.
The traditional Christmas decorations sold in the Sears Wish Book, first published in 1934, contrasted sharply with the new look of aluminum Christmas trees and accessories.

After a successful first year, production of Aluminum Specialty’s Evergleam trees took place year-round, sometimes requiring three shifts. Sales peaked in 1964–1965, and the Evergleam brand had a 60–65 percent market share in the United States and Canada throughout the 1960s. Primary outlets included regional stores and national chains such as Montgomery Ward, Ben Franklin, and Woolworth’s. Between 75 and 80 percent of all Evergleams were silver, with the remainder appearing in green, gold, and pink.

Ella Herzog’s four-foot Evergleam and dog, Bennie, in her living room in Manitowoc, Christmas 1966. Courtesy of Barbara Bundy-Jost
Ella Herzog’s four-foot Evergleam and dog, Bennie, in her living room in Manitowoc, Christmas 1966. (Courtesy of Barbara Bundy-Jost)

What Made Evergleams Popular?

Usability and Affordability

The simple and highly effective concepts of the paper sleeve branch holders and the drill-hole angles made the trees very easy to assemble and store. They were produced more cheaply and sold at a lower price point than the Modern Coatings trees, while maintaining the same visual effect.

Two-foot Evergleam Instruction sheet. WHS Museum #2005.163.1.3
Two-foot Evergleam Instruction sheet. (WHS Museum #2005.163.1.3)

Access to market networks

By 1959, Aluminum Specialty had established market relationships and sales contracts from coast to coast. They were able to drop their shiny new product into a well-functioning sales network.

Jerry Waak, vice president of the toy division at Aluminum Specialty Company, instructs the sales force at the American Toy Fair, New York, March 1969. Courtesy of Jerry Waak
Jerry Waak, vice president of the toy division at Aluminum Specialty Company, instructs the sales force at the American Toy Fair, New York, March 1969. (Courtesy of Jerry Waak)

Product innovation

The company quickly developed new styles and accessories to enhance the Evergleam, and they continued to do so throughout the 1960s.

Aluminum Specialty catalog page, late 1960s.
Aluminum Specialty catalog page, late 1960s. (Courtesy of Jerry Waak)

Originality

Jerry Waak, former vice president of Aluminum Specialty’s Toy Division, believes the Evergleam was successful because it was a novel addition to a crowded and traditional Christmas decoration marketplace.

Portion of Aluminum Specialty’s aluminum Christmas tree box, 1959. - WHS Museum # 2009.121.1.1-.3
Portion of Aluminum Specialty’s aluminum Christmas tree box, 1959. (WHS Museum #2009.121.1.1-.3)

Consistency with contemporary consumer products aesthetics

The timing for an aluminum Christmas tree was right as modern, sleek, space-age designs exploded in popularity in the consumer culture of the late 1950s.

"Satellite Space Race" card game, made by Ed-U-Cards, 1957. - Image courtesy of Richard Pfeifer
“Satellite Space Race” card game, made by Ed-U-Cards, 1957. (Image courtesy of Richard Pfeifer)

Today

Today’s Renewed Interest

Evergleams were first popular between 1959 and about 1972. They experienced a renaissance in 2004 with the publication of the book Season’s Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree by Julie Lindemann and John Shimon. Extensive media coverage of the book pushed Evergleams back into the national spotlight, and the trees became fashionable once again. The renewed interest continues to grow with each passing year as fans and collectors connect online and through social media. Enthusiasts have revived the once-forgotten history of the Evergleam. As a result, today’s public interest has actually lasted longer than the first craze back in the 1960s.

Season’s Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree by J. Shimon and J. Lindemann, 2004.

Season’s Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree
by J. Shimon and J. Lindemann, 2004.

Self-portrait of photographer-artists Julie Lindemann and John Shimon, 2004. Their 2004 book, Season’s Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree, helped launch the renewed national interest in aluminum Christmas trees. - Courtesy of J. Shimon and J. Lindemann

Self-portrait of photographer-artists Julie Lindemann and John Shimon, 2004. Their 2004 book, Season’s Gleamings: The Art of the Aluminum Christmas Tree, helped launch the renewed national interest in aluminum Christmas trees. (Courtesy of J. Shimon and J. Lindemann)

Display of Evergleam aluminum Christmas trees at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, 2018.
Display of Evergleam aluminum Christmas trees at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, 2018.

Why Have Aluminum Christmas Trees Endured?

Volume of production

Millions of trees were produced in the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. Therefore, a large number have survived.

Volume of production: Millions of trees were produced in the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. Therefore, a large number have survived.
Evergleam boxes from the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Museum.

Easy and effective storage

The Evergleams’ easy-to-use paper sleeves allowed owners to keep their trees’ branches protected. While many boxes have become damaged over the years, the branches inside are usually in good shape.

Easy and effective storage: The Evergleams' easy-to-use paper sleeves allowed owners to keep their trees' branches protected. While many boxes have become damaged over the years, the branches inside are usually in good shape.
An Evergleam being assembled at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, 2018.

Originality

Shiny aluminum trees are still a novel product in a crowded and traditional Christmas decoration marketplace.

Evergleams on Eighth display in downtown Manitowoc, 2015. -Courtesy of Cathy Karl
Evergleams on Eighth display in downtown Manitowoc, 2015. (Courtesy of Cathy Karl)

Renewed appeal of the mid-century aesthetic

Since the early 2000s, mid-century modern antiques have enjoyed extreme popularity among collectors and enthusiasts, and the appeal does not appear to be waning.

The Wisconsin Historical Museum’s replica 1960s living room, 2018.
The Wisconsin Historical Museum’s replica 1960s living room, 2018.

Online community and marketplace

The general public’s increased ability to share images and content online has connected aluminum tree enthusiasts from around the country. Evergleams are a perfect fit for the Instagram age. Almost all sales of aluminum trees are now done online, primarily through eBay.

An eBay listing of Evergleams, 2020.

Why do we collect and preserve Evergleams as part of the Wisconsin story?

Longstanding Wisconsin company

Aluminum Specialty Company lasted nearly one hundred years and sold many millions of products across the country.

1959, the year Aluminum Specialty Company began selling aluminum Christmas trees, was also the 50th anniversary of their founding.
1959, the year Aluminum Specialty Company began selling aluminum Christmas trees, was also the 50th anniversary of their founding.

Regional history and identity

Metal goods companies such as Aluminum Specialty, Mirro, and West Bend employed generations of Wisconsinites, and their facilities once dominated landscapes of the area.

Workers polishing aluminum items with belt-driven machinery at the Manitowoc Aluminum Novelty Company (one of the companies that later merged to form the Aluminum Goods Manufacturing Company), ca. 1905. - WHI Image ID 61149
Workers polishing aluminum items with belt-driven machinery at the Manitowoc Aluminum Novelty Company (one of the companies that later merged to form the Aluminum Goods Manufacturing Company), ca. 1905. (WHI Image ID 61149)

Broad appeal

Evergleams are part of the most popular holiday in the world. For those who celebrate Christmas, trees are an important element of the season.

National Christmas tree on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., 1997. - Courtesy of the Library of Congress
National Christmas tree on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., 1997. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Company records and facilities are gone

Almost all of the aluminum factories and warehouses are now gone. As far as we know, no collections of company records or archives remain, even with the descendants of owners and employees.

Detail of a Sanborn fire insurance map showing the Aluminum Specialty Company plant in Manitowoc, 1927. - Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Detail of a Sanborn fire insurance map showing the Aluminum Specialty Company plant in Manitowoc, 1927. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Visual appeal matters

In the museum field, visual appeal is crucial to attracting and retaining the interest of audiences. Aluminum trees are bright, shiny objects, and people are naturally attracted to them.

Blue Green Evergleam on display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison
Display of Evergleams at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, 2019.
The sprawling facilities of the Aluminum Goods Manufacturing Company, 1936. WHi Image ID 131121
The sprawling facilities of the Aluminum Goods Manufacturing Company, 1936. (WHI Image ID 131121)

What else was made by Wisconsin’s aluminum industry?

For many decades, the story of American aluminum production centered around Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Aluminum Specialty Company was actually the smaller of the two massive aluminum product companies in Manitowoc; the other was Mirro Aluminum Company, which was at one time the world’s largest maker of aluminum goods. Each company lasted nearly one hundred years and made a wide variety of products for many different markets.

Millions of domestic goods

Manitowoc’s aluminum manufacturers produced quality kitchen and house goods at very affordable prices, making them accessible to many millions of Americans in the 1900s.

Page from a broadside used as a promotional and educational tool for Mirro sellers and customers, 1918. - WHS Library Pamphlet Collection
Page from a broadside used as a promotional and educational tool for Mirro sellers and customers, 1918. (WHS Library Pamphlet Collection)

Lots of toys, too

Both Aluminum Specialty and Mirro had major divisions of their companies dedicated to toys and decorations such as sleds, scooters, and Christmas tree ornaments. Aluminum toys have been enjoyed by many millions of children, especially members of the Baby Boomer generation.

Window display of the Schmidt Hardware Company in Madison, Wisconsin, advertising Mirro aluminum toy sets and dishes. - WHI Image ID 22334
Window display of the Schmidt Hardware Company in Madison, Wisconsin, advertising Mirro aluminum toy sets and dishes. (WHI Image ID 22334)

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