Well-Worn Tree Still Sparkles

Everything old sparkles like new as the holiday season brings out the best in vintage Christmas collectibles. One of my favorites is my antique feather Christmas tree.

These strange little trees are one of the old Christmas trimmings that have found a renaissance with today’s homeowners, decorators and merchants. Many of today’s popular stores like Target and major home fashion retailers like Martha Stewart have reproductions now available for shoppers.

But for antique savvy shoppers, only the genuine Victorian models will do. These include the original 19th-century, German-made versions and continue up to the 20th-century, American-made imitations that were sold through Sears catalog. Japan also produced feather trees for the American market in the early 20th century.

Tabletop Christmas trees first became stylish during the Victorian age as a German cottage industry developed and produced quality trees that featured lightweight and plentiful feathers for pine needles.

These trees are generally 3- to 4-feet tall and are constructed from wires, wrapped with green dyed goose, turkey or swan feathers. Many have red composition berries on the branches and some have candleholders. The branches are bendable but styled very straight, and the trunks of these trees are usually wrapped in brown tissue paper. Most often the tree trunks stand upright in painted wooden boxes, trimmed with poinsettia and holly designs. Other models sport painted cast-iron stands.

Considered the first artificial Christmas tree, Victorian feather trees are easy to display no matter how limited your space. They became less popular in the mid-20th century as large, real trees became the common choice. At the same time, artificial trees turned to modern looks like aluminum and realistic floor models.

I’m lucky to have one of these German goose feather trees, though mine dates to the early 20th century. It is easy to decorate because the branches are stiff and spaced out well, meaning ornaments hang nicely.

My feather tree suffers from years of use and I had to rewrap the trunk with green floral tape to strengthen it a bit after a fall, thanks to a pet cat. But I can’t imagine not getting it out and setting it up in my bedroom. Children, and now grandchildren, expect it.

I’ve used mine for years and trim it with Nutcracker ballet figures given to me by my mother when I was a child. Made by Gorham Silver, these treasures are painted paper mache characters. It makes the tree special, especially now that my granddaughter, Maggie Benson, is a member of Oglebay Institute’s ballet company performing the “Nutcracker” at both the Mansion and Towngate this December.

When purchasing an antique feather tree, be sure to examine it closely and see if it’s been reinforced or altered in any way. Also test the brittleness of the feathers. And if you do purchase or own an old feather tree, treat it carefully and store it out of sunlight, dampness or heat. Air should circulate around the tree and you might want to consider covering it with a pillowcase when not in use to keep it clean.

These trees bring joy for generations if cared for properly. For those with small antique ornaments like me, a feather tree is a must and adds to the merriment of vintage decorating.

Perhaps the best practical reason to get a feather tree is they are simple to set up and decorate – and they never need water or electric lights. These trees are beautiful in their simplicity and the perfect showcase for your Christmas treasures.

For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at: zambitomaureen @hotmail.com or by writing in care of this newspaper.

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