Oh Christmas Tree

written by Roy Rosser, Ph.D., Patent Agent

Christmas Tree: Real or Fake?

With Christmas trees, even a child can tell the difference just by looking. So the real question for trees is not are they fake, but “Which is greener?”

A topic that is bitterly disputed on the websites of the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), backing biological trees, and the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), insisting that artificial trees are better for the environment. Both sides do acknowledge the same history – they just characterize it very differently, beginning with the ACTA calling them “artificial” trees and the NCTA referring to them as “fake” trees.

Both agree that the first fake/artificial trees originated in Germany in the late 1800’s. Spreading deforestation made real trees harder to come by, forcing people to look for other ways to celebrate Christmas. Instead of cutting down the dwindling supply of pine trees, they began to use feather covered metal wire trees. Taken from geese, turkeys, ostriches or swans, the feathers were often dyed green to imitate pine needles. This practice spread to England and on to the United States. The fake feather trees were ornate, but expensive.

In 1928, this changed when an American inventor named C.H. Glover revolutionized the manufacture of artificial Christmas, drastically reducing their cost using a method described and protected by his US Patent 1,694,974.

Glover’s novel approach was to use brush manufacturing technology to produce the artificial trees. The idea was taken up by the US based Addis Brush Company.   These artificial trees were a big hit, and led to Addis becoming the leading supplier of artificial Christmas trees both in the US and abroad, particularly In Britain and the British Empire. It also led to further developments in artificial tree manufacture, including metal foil trees and eventually plastic trees.

The NCTA, however, chooses to downplay this great American contribution to Christmas by reminding people that the Addis Brush Company also made toilet brushes, and by asserting that the original artificial Christmas trees were nothing more than “a bunch of green toilet brushes”.

While it’s true that Addis did make toilet brushes, their main product was bottle brushes.   This was an era in which milk was delivered in bottles, not cartons, and bottle brushes were a household staple and not confined to chemistry labs as they are today. A more correct characterization of the first artificial Christmas trees would be that they were an array of green bottle brushes. However, as any politician or advertiser knows, truth and facts should never stand in the way of a good story, especially one that gets people on your side.

Knowing that is, however, not much help in deciding which tree is greener. All it does is remind one that all arguments on both sides need to be looked at with a great deal of skepticism. And since that can be energy draining and time consuming, you may as well just do what you did last year – or not.

Whatever tree you decide on, Merry Christmas.