A woman observes a display of vintage aluminum Christmas trees in Manitowoc as part of the city's Evergleams on Eighth celebration. (Photo courtesy of Barb Bundy-Jost)
A woman observes a display of vintage aluminum Christmas trees in Manitowoc as part of the city's Evergleams on Eighth celebration. (Photo courtesy of Barb Bundy-Jost)

Visit Manitowoc to celebrate all things Evergleam and learn about the history of the vintage decorations.

The Evergleam aluminum trees are back, and those spangled icons of America’s Space Age could not be hotter.

In Manitowoc, the birthplace of the classic 1960s-era Christmas tree, store owner Cathy Karl has watched in amazement as pandemic collecting and the ongoing mid-century modern design craze have pushed prices into the stratosphere. She recently heard through the Evergleam grapevine that a rare blue and burgundy aluminum tree sold for $10,000.

From Manitowoc’s main drag to the Wisconsin Historical Museum on Madison’s Capitol Square, it’s looking like an ever-gleaming kitsch-mas here in Wisconsin. 

Karl’s shop, Heart & Homestead, is part of Manitowoc’s Evergleams on Eighth celebration, which involves a narrated trolley ride past 36 vintage aluminum trees lit up for the holidays. The “trolley to the trees” takes place the first three Saturday evenings in December and demand, after a trolley-less 2020, is also high.

“I think it’s because it’s so pretty. The trees are professionally lit, sparkling, and unbelievable,’’ said Karl, who also sells Evergleam T-shirts, calendars, and the like. “You can’t go anywhere else in America and see this. It’s unique to Manitowoc.”

The tour starts at the Manitowoc Public Library, where visitors can visit the Enchanted Evergleam Forest, and learn about the history of how Manitowoc’s aluminum industry helped remake our vision of Christmas. Besides the trees, the city also manufactured tinsel and Sno-coaster aluminum sleds.

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In Madison, the state historical society has brought back its “Evergleaming Christmas” display after a year off for the pandemic. Once again, people can visit the vintage 1960s living room and have their holiday selfies taken around the Evergleams.

“It’s one of those holiday traditions,’’ said Joe Kapler, the museum’s lead curator of cultural history. “People would be disappointed if we didn’t do it.”

The classic 1960s Evergleam aluminum Christmas trees originated in Manitowoc. (Photo via the Wisconsin Historical Society)

This year the display features 18 trees and a theme linking the era to America’s obsession with the Space Race. A vintage 1963 television will be playing ads from the 1960s that feature products capitalizing on America’s passion for all things space age.

The trees were introduced at Christmastime in 1959 by the Aluminum Speciality Corporation of Manitowoc. The city on Lake Michigan had been a hub for aluminum manufacturing since a local industrialist went to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and was captivated by the shiny modern metal. Kapler has done scores of national media interviews on Evergleams and said reporters are often surprised about the iconic tree’s Wisconsin origins, assuming the sleek trees originated in Los Angeles or the Madison Avenue of the “Mad Men” era.

“There’s a homegrown Wisconsin element to them,” Kapler said.

Kapler said that Aluminum Specialty didn’t make the first tree, but they perfected it, making it easier to transport, set up and store. 

By Christmas 1960, the tree was christened the Evergleam. Like Kleenex, it became the popular name for the product even though some trees were made by others.

“And it hit,’’ Kapler said. “And why it hit, is a great question. In 1962, people heard [President John F.] Kennedy’s ‘We will go to the Moon’ speech. It was in that environment–of rockets and sleek product design–that these trees hit. People wanted to be part of that grand adventure to beat the Soviets.”

Kapler said the trees were popular throughout the 1960s, and Evergleam controlled the lion’s share of the market.  Karl called it “the workingman’s tree,’’ and said they retailed for $4.95 up to $29 for the most expensive. The last Evergleam was made around 1971.

The rumor that “Charlie Brown killed the Evergleam” is overblown, Kapler said. Yes, in “Charlie Brown’s Christmas,” Lucy Van Pelt longs for a pink aluminum tree, but Charlie and Linus opt for the last “real tree” on the lot, a sad little sapling dripping needles.

“I don’t think you can pin it on Charlie Brown,’’ Kapler said, noting that the Christmas special first aired in 1965 and the trees remained popular through the end of the 1960s.

An Evergleam aluminum Christmas tree on display during Manitowoc’s Evergleams on Eighth celebration. (Photo courtesy of Cathy Karl)

In the decades that followed, you could pick up an Evergleam at a garage sale, still in its battered white box with red and green lettering, for peanuts. But that began to change when art photographers John Shimon and Julie Lindemann began collecting the castoff trees around their native Manitowoc. An art book of their trees, “Season’s Gleamings,” was published in 2004 and the historical society did its first exhibit in 2005.

Back then, you could buy a tree for $100, Kapler said. Today the price can be $1,000 a foot, for the rarer colors, although silver trees are listed on eBay for less than $100 a foot. There’s even a scam in which sellers paint the silver trees to make them appear to be the rare colors. Karl said that “everyone’s tight-lipped” about who bought the $10,000 tree, but it’s believed to be a Wisconsin collector. She and Kapler both said that the COVID pandemic has pushed up prices for all collectibles, including Evergleams.                           

The Space Race is long over, but the second craze for aluminum trees has lasted longer than the first.

“The Evergleam still has legs,’’ Kapler said. “ I think it’s because they work so well in the social media age, on Instagram, because they are literally bright shiny things.”