A Feather Tree for Christmas

by Bill Schuette

A feather tree such as this one, was popular during the early 20th century

A feather tree such as this one, was popular during the early 20th century

Feathered Christmas trees were first created in Germany in the late 1800s. These trees are considered to be one of the first artificial Christmas trees.

The custom in Germany during the 19th century was to chop off the tops of fir trees during the holiday season. However, the practice prevented the tree from growing taller and making it useless to the lumber industry. This deforestation tradition was eventually halted by laws which regulated the cutting of live trees.  

The solution to the problem was an ingenious use of goose feathers which were abundant during that period. A cottage industry soon arose, with the production of these simulated holiday trees.

Feather trees were created by first dyeing goose, turkey, chicken or swan feathers green, to simulate pine needles, and attaching them with metal wires or sticks to form the branches. A wooden dowel was used for the trunk.

Space was left between the branches to accommodate candles which would illuminate the trees on Christmas Eve. This helped prevent fires, and allowed more space for ornaments. Artificial berries were sometimes attached to the ends of the branches.

German immigrants brought the tradition to the United States, and feather trees became popular during the 1920s, being sold by department stores.

Another advantage of these artificial trees was that one didn’t have to trek into a snowy woods to chop down a real tree, and they would not shed needles at the end of the season.

However, during the 1930s, feather trees fell out of fashion, due to an abundance of real trees in the United States. In an attempt to reinvigorate the market, Germany began selling a wider variety of feather trees through Montgomery Ward. Various colors were introduced and new styles were created.

After WWII, feather trees lost their prominence, and in the 1950s, aluminum trees became all the rage.

Each year, during the Sauk County Historical Society’s Edwardian Christmas event, an antique feather tree has been on display, currently owned by Mona Larsen. This ornate tree was originally owned by Mona’s grandparents, William and Mary Waters Boettcher, who lived in Baraboo.

When she was a little girl, Mona recalled that the feather tree was always displayed on the library table during the Christmas season. Mary never took the ornaments off, she just put the tree away in the attic. The tree still has its original ornaments and an aluminum foil garland.

Today, along with genuine trees, artificial trees have again become popular—some so realistic that it’s hard to tell the difference.