Christmas With Plastic Trees

The Christmas season has fully descended at the Barker Mansion! This is one of my favorite times of the year here as we get more guests in the doors who have never been before, and many of these new visitors are kids brought in on school field trips. Now, in my opinion, kids have the best questions about a variety of subjects simply because they are still learning and don’t have preconceived notions about how something should be done. Kids that come to the mansion on field trips or who are brought by friends and family to see the Christmas decorations always manage to figure out at least one question that makes me stop and rethink what I know, or think I know, in order to answer them correctly. The questions the staff here get from kids are often the subject of our conversations as we try to one-up each other on who got the best, oddest or most impossible questions. Sometimes however, the questions are not impossible to answer, they are simply ones that make me realize that I need to explain something better while giving tour.

One such instance happened earlier this month when I was giving tour to a group of 2nd grade students. One young man, the first to gather the courage to ask a question, wanted to know why we didn’t have real Christmas trees in the mansion. His reasoning for asking this was the fact that the Barker family would have “most definitely” had real Christmas trees for decorations. This began a discussion with the entire group which I started by asking why they thought the Barker Mansion staff would not bring in real Christmas trees. Of course there were the correct answers of “can’t keep them alive all month”, “they won’t stay pretty”, and “they make a mess”, however the same little boy who first asked the question again said that we work so hard to make everything else original so why aren’t the trees real?

As he kept insisting that we had to have real trees to be “original”, it made me wonder how many others walk through the mansion at Christmas time and wonder where the real pine trees are. After explaining to this group about the history of artificial trees, I decided to write this blog post to share a rather interesting part of history that most don’t likely think about.

The first artificial Christmas trees are believed to have been invited by Germans during the 19th century due to massive deforestation that was devastating certain parts of the country. The trees they created were made with dyed goose feathers. Feather trees were common for many years before they were replaced by plastic versions at the beginning of the 20th century. From there, artificial trees became very popular in America. Trees of different colors, trees with attached candle holders (this is before string lights) and trees made to stand the test of time skyrocketed in sales. While the Barkers probably did in fact have “real” Christmas trees, artificial trees were common enough that it is entirely likely that they had an artificial tree at some point during their lives.

Another tree we often get questions about is our silver Angel Pine tree. This is a 1950-1960 era tree that we use to represent the decorations from Purdue’s time at the Mansion; 1948-1968. This tree is not decorated and instead has a rotating color wheel that shines on it from across the room.

So, in the end, artificial Christmas trees are true to the time period of the Gilded Age. Whether or not the Barker family would have used artificial trees is another story, but the little boy from my field trip, and likely many others, can be assured that we are staying true and “original” even if we use artificial trees.

Happy Holidays!

Heritage Interpreter, Jackie Perkins

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