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Note from Editor: The photos on this page were all collected by Bill Nelson, and the text is all Bill's. This page is based on George's version, but I have added some of Bill's photos that George did not post. I have also enlarged most of the thumbnails to make them easier to see. You can still get to the "big versions" by clicking on the thumbnails. - Paul.

Here are some marvelous pictures of Christmas past.
Click on each to enlarge.

An absolutely charming Christmas scene, undated but most likely early 1900s based on the style of the house and the children's clothing. This marvelous photograph is from David Neely's collection, and was restored by Lee Lowry. Since no power lines are evident in the scene, it is probable that the freshly cut tree will be lit with candles. One can easily imagine how beautiful the tree will look decorated in the parlor. Lee has also rendered a colorized version of this picture, which brings out more detail. This is a larger file with a longer download time, but it is certainly worth the wait. Look closely at the porch in this version, as you will be able to see another child standing there as well.

I jokingly refer to this photo as "The Happy Family at Christmas." A close look at the picture will reveal that nobody really looks very happy, despite the fact that they are obviously of above average means. Notice that the ceiling light fixture is gas, and the tree is lit with candles. Also notice that some of the branch tips have an ornament on them that we would today use as a tree topper only. The room features tall, papered ceilings and the base of the tree is secured in a very interesting holder. This photo is from the collection of Marshall Gulbranson. Also included here is a restored and colorized version of the photo, kindly provided by Lee Lowry. The colorized version brings out a lot of detail not evident in the original picture. The picture is undated, but is most likely late 1800s.
Here is a charming picture of a very old tradition-that of actually putting the presents on the tree. Decorated only with a few ornaments, garland and the presents, this 1896 photo clearly shows the mittens, toys and games that Santa brought the night before. The tree is unlit.
This pictures shows an impressively-sized feather tree, one of the first true artificial trees used in America. Lit with candles, the well decorated tree has several dolls and a toy piano, indicating that the family children must all be girls. The picture is from the collection of David Neely, and is from the very early 1900s.
Here is another interesting picture from the collection of Marshall Gulbranson, and is from the very early 1900s. Notice the elaborate scene under the tree, and the almost life size doll sitting between the children at the bottom of the photo. The tree appears to be lit with exhaust tipped carbon filament lamps, and sits on a covered table, a practice typical of the times.

Note from Editor: As proprietor of Big Christmas Trains™, it's my duty to point out that the white structure over the doll's pointy hat is a tinplate model of a walkway for getting across the tracks at a crowded station. Just over the baby's head you can make out the silhouette of a locomotive. These items plus the farm animals imply that this family practiced another great old Christmas tradition, that of setting up railroads and Christmas villages around the Christmas tree. To learn more, check out our article: A Brief History of Christmas Villages - Paul

This 1907 British postcard which was originally colorized shows a rather slender Santa with the Christmas tree in his bag. A long standing early tradition in many homes both in America and Great Britain, Santa would bring the tree with him on Christmas Eve, where he would set it up, decorate it and load it down with gifts to surprise the family on Christmas morning. The tree in this scene is lit with candles. The excellent restoration of this photograph was undertaken by Lee Lowry.

The back of this 1912 photograph states that it was "hand colored from life", meaning the hand tinting was executed according to the colors of the actual scene. Turn of the century photographers would often make notes during an in-home picture session, so as to more accurately colorize the picture after it was processed. In this case, the artist was a bit over zealous in colorizing the packages beneath the tree, as they were all wrapped in white paper with red ribbons-traditional in the days before commercial wrapping paper was introduced by the Hallmark company. This tree has no electric lighting...

Circa 1938, this photo shows a tree lit with C-6 Christmas lamps and is quite sparsely decorated, typical of a late 30s tree in the United States.
From 1929, this modest tree in the New Haven, Connecticut home of Mr. and Mrs. George Holt is lit by 5 strings of intermediate base C-9 lamps, more commonly seen in outdoor use. Although difficult to make out in the picture, the Holt's decorations include a charming Putz scene under the tree, recreating a small village complete with stores, cottages, a farm with a barn and animals, an ice skating pond and a large church. Such scenes were traditional decoration of early and middle 20th century homes, and remain popular to this day. Note the high ceiling of the Holt's home, and the sparse use of ornaments as well. The tree sits on a wooden platform used both to raise it higher and to provide a stable base for the Putz scene.

This picture was taken on December 15, 1940 at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Jim Tucker of Montvale, Tennessee. The tree is lit with just three stings of eight C-6 miniature base lamps, and is more sparsely decorated than most trees of the day. Among the presents under the tree are a metal musical top, a toy delivery wagon complete with horse, several stuffed animals a child-size tea table and chairs and a boy's Popeye play set which included blocks for constructing buildings and characters from the popular Popeye cartoon series. Note the 1920s style chandelier and the wonderful 1940s overstuffed furniture.

Here is the 1941 year Christmas tree from the same home as above. The Tuckers added lot more decorations and lights to their tree, which now holds six strings of C-6 miniature base lights-the maximum that the era's electric circuits could handle from a single outlet. From the looks of things, the children must have been extra good that year, for Santa seems to have left a lot more presents! Sadly, this was the year of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and by the time this picture was taken, (December 19th, 1941) the United States was at war with Japan. It would not be until December of 1945 that any new Christmas lights would be manufactured, as all factories would soon be dedicated to producing products for the War effort. Next year, the children's gifts would be made mostly of wood, due to wartime manufacturing restrictions and materials shortages. It was during this time that NOMA sold their line of wooden pull toys and vehicles. The children look so innocent and happy, oblivious to the world in turmoil around them...

Here is Chris Cuff, a frequent contributor to this website and a personal friend, chewing on his brand new rubber duck on Christmas Day in 1953. Notice the wonderful 1950s style gas station his brother is playing with-it would bring a fortune today! The tree stand is still used in the Cuff household, and is a family heirloom. Chris reports that their tree had only two strings of C-6 lights on it for a total of 16 bulbs. The ornaments are the World War II era plastic examples from Chris' grandmother, and the tinsel on the branches is of the vintage lead type-long since banned from today's trees.

Website visitor Anna Bates shares this picture and memories of her mother with us. Referring to their first aluminum Christmas tree, Anna writes: "I still remember when Mom brought that thing home in a big cardboard box.  Permanent tree!  When she pulled out that painted silver pole, we laughed so hard we cried.  Later that night we all stood in the living room for the ritual of turning on the color wheel for the first time.  We stood there in amazement watching the tree turn red, yellow --- then when blue came around a hushed "oooooooh" from all of us.  She was so proud of that thing.  In this picture, she is sitting next to her tree, wearing a matching aluminum corsage, strappy sandals, huge rhinestone earrings to accentuate her dyed red hair.  I loved her so much.  And to think I thought all that stuff was tacky when I was a teenager! Her name was Nora Bates, and she died from complications of Alzheimer's disease in April 2003.
Here is a 1916 view of a Christmas tree at the Biltmore House in North Carolina, built at the turn of the century by Charles Vanderbilt. The tree is lit by more than two hundred multiple wired intermediate base C-7 carbon filament lamps, and was just one of many electrically lit trees in the mansion. The picture has been hand tinted by the photographer, and it appears that there was at least one string of lights near the top of the 12 foot tall tree that was not functional at the time the photograph was taken. Breathtaking in its grandeur even by today's standards, these trees were quite a novelty on the early 1900s, and impossibly expensive as well. Vanderbilt had electrical outlets installed in the floor just for the tree, which is sitting in a 30 gallon tub of water to help keep it fresh. The tree is decorated with lights and lead tinsel only.

Note from Editor: When I "rescued" this photo from an old archive of Bill's site, I put it last because it is not exactly representative of the typical family Christmas tree. Often the Vanderbilts had trees that were two stories tall, so this is a small tree by Biltmore standards. In 2007, our family visited Biltmore when it was decorated for Christmas. To see photos from that trip, please click here



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