The Tumultuous History of Tinsel

PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images
PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images

When December rolls around, we find ourselves asking the same questions: What’s in figgy pudding? Why do I need to make the Yuletide gay? And what is tinsel exactly?

That last question is only slightly less mystifying than the first two. Many of us have seen tinsel—if not in person, then in one of the countless holiday movies and television specials that air this time of year. It’s the stringy, shiny, silvery stuff that’s hung up as decoration, primarily on Christmas trees. But what is it made of? And why is it associated with the holiday season? This is where the seemingly simple decoration gets complicated.

Tinsel is one of the cheaper items used to trim trees today, but that wasn’t always the case. In 17th century Germany, the first Christmas trees were embellished with tinsel made from real silver pressed into strips. These early Christmas trees were also decorated with real, lit candles, and the silver combined with the flickering firelight created a twinkly effect that worked as a precursor to modern-day string lights.

Silver tinsel did have its drawbacks. It was expensive, so only the wealthiest families had access to it. And those who did have enough money to own tinsel had a limited window to use it, as the metal often tarnished before December 25.

By the early 1900s, the Christmas traditions imported by German immigrants had become mainstream in the U.S. Americans were looking for affordable ways to beautify the evergreens in their living rooms, so manufacturers started making tinsel out of aluminum and copper. The updated decorations produced the same festive sparkle as the silver versions, but for a fraction of the price; also, they could be reused year after year. But they weren’t perfect: The aluminum paper in tinsel was extremely flammable, making it a disastrous choice for dry trees decorated with lights. When World War I began, copper production was funneled toward the war effort and tinsel disappeared from holiday displays.

Its absence turned out to be temporary. Despite centuries of hiccups, makers of holiday decor still believed tinsel deserved a place in modern Christmas celebrations. They just needed to come up with the right material to use, something that could be hung in every home without any backlash. In the early 20th century, the clear choice was lead.

Lead revived tinsel from obscurity, and soon it was embraced as a standard Christmas component along with ornaments and electric lights. It became so popular in the 1950s and ‘60s that tinsel is often thought of as a mid-century fad rather than a tradition that’s been around as long as Christmas trees themselves.

With so many synthetic decorations becoming available around Christmastime, tinsel made from metal was considered one of the safer items to have in the home. A 1959 newspaper article on holiday safety reads: “Tinsel is fairly safe, because even if kiddies decide to swallow it, it will not cause poisoning.”

As we know today, tinsel made from lead isn’t “fairly safe.” Lead that gets ingested or absorbed through the skin can cause headaches, vomiting, constipation, and in extreme cases, brain and kidney damage. Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government started setting limits on how much lead can be in consumer products, and in 1972, the FDA came to an agreement with tinsel manufacturers that production of the lead product would cease.

It may not be as en vogue as it was 60 years ago, but tinsel still resurfaces every holiday season. So if the tinsel we use today isn’t made from silver, copper, aluminum, or lead, what is it? The answer is polyvinyl chloride. Industrial machines shred shiny ribbons of the plastic to make the wispy strands that add a bit of glamour to Christmas trees. Plastic tinsel isn’t as elegant as the kind made from real metal, and it’s lightweight, so it’s less likely to stay put after it’s hung over a pine branch. For these reasons, PVC tinsel never caught on to the degree of its predecessor, but it still succeeds in bringing vintage bling to the holidays without poisoning your family.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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25 Amazing Facts for International Beer Day

iStock
iStock

Every year, suds lovers celebrate International Beer Day on August 7—which makes it the pefect day to share any one of these amazing facts about beer.

1. After he won the Nobel Prize, Niels Bohr was given a perpetual supply of beer piped into his house.

2. The Code of Hammurabi decreed that bartenders who watered down beer would be executed.

3. At the Wife Carrying World Championships, first prize is the wife's weight in beer.

4. A cloud near the constellation Aquila contains enough ethyl alcohol to fill 400 trillion trillion pints of beer.

5. Coined in the early 1900s, the word alcoholiday means leisure time spent drinking.

6. The builders of the Great Pyramid of Giza were paid with a daily ration of beer.

7. During WWII, a bear named Wojtek joined the Polish army. He transported ammunition and sometimes drank beer.

8. Fried beer won Most Creative Fried Food at the 2010 Texas State Fair.

9. The top five states for beer consumption per capita: 1. New Hampshire, 2. Montana, 3. Vermont, 4. North Dakota, 5. South Dakota.

10. Germany is home to a beer pipeline. Taps in Veltsin-Arena are connected by a 5km tube of beer.

11. Thomas Jefferson wrote parts of the Declaration of Independence in a Philadelphia tavern.

12. Cenosillicaphobia is the fear of an empty glass.

13. At the end of Prohibition, FDR said, "What America needs now is a drink."

14. Winston Churchill called the concept of Prohibition "an affront to the whole history of mankind."

15. George Washington insisted his continental army be permitted a quart of beer as part of their daily rations.

16. Oktoberfest originally started as a festival celebrating the 1810 marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig.

17. At spas in Europe, you can literally bathe in beer as a physical and mental therapeutic treatment.

18. In the 1990s, the Beer Lovers Party ran candidates in Belarus and Russia.

19. J.K. Rowling invented Quidditch in a pub.

20. Beer helped Joseph Priestley discover oxygen. He noticed gases rising from the big vats of beer at a brewery and asked to do some experiments.

21. A Buddhist temple in the Thai countryside was built with over 1 million recycled beer bottles.

22. The moon has a crater named Beer.

23. Beer soup was a common breakfast in medieval Europe.

24. At the start of Bavarian Beer Week in Germany, an open-air beer fountain dispenses free beer to the public.

25. In the 1980s, a beer-drinking goat was elected mayor of Lajitas, Texas.