Holiday decoration in the Banning Museum’s girls’ bedroom draws questions year after year. Rather than being the center of attention itself, the simple feather tree is meant to draw attention to its ornaments. The branches of the tree, thought to be first type of artificial Christmas tree, are made of goose feathers and are widely spaced to allow good viewing of its ornamentation. The spacing also prevents candles used as decorations from catching the tree on fire. Faux berries often were put on the branch tips, to be used as candle holders.
At the forefront of what is now a billion-dollar industry, the artificial Christmas tree had its humble beginnings as a product of necessity in 19th-century Germany. The earliest feather trees were thought to have been created in Germany c. 1845. Previously, residents cut the tips off tall fir trees and used then in their homes as Christmas trees. However, fears of deforestation led to statutes limiting the number of trees people could have.
Feathers, unlike trees, were plentiful in the majority of German homes. Feathers from geese, turkeys, swans or even ostriches—often dyed green—were attached to wooden sticks and secured with metal wires. The “branches” were trimmed to shape, then drilled into a dowel that became the trunk of the tree.
The American Christmas tree had its roots in Victorian times. Queen Victoria often traveled to the town of Coburg in what is now Germany to visit family and eventually met her beloved Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. In 1848, Albert presented his wife and family—now ensconced back in England—with a German-style Christmas tree filled with the finest hand-blown glass ornaments, which became the talk of England. It was depicted in periodicals of the time, and British families rushed to create their own tree.
The craze traveled across the pond but was found odd at first by most Americans. When Theodore Roosevelt put the first feather tree in the White House, some families followed the trend. However, it didn’t become widespread until the 1913 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog advertised the first artificial Christmas tree. By 1920, almost all Americans had a Christmas tree, either real or feathered. The product’s popularity reached its zenith later that decade.
Many extant Victorian feather trees have brittle feathers or are missing branches but can be restored. Their recent resurgence in popularity means new ones are available as well. They come in all colors, to suit a range of holidays and décor schemes.
Victorian enthusiasts can order their own tree from master feather-tree makers such as Dennis Bauer. For a selection, visit hometraditions.com.
by Candace Yacono
Photography by Jaimee Itagaki