First, a little about the past… Feather trees as a Christmas decoration have a rich history. Germany is credited with introducing many of our customs and traditions that we honor at Christmas, and the use of evergreens to celebrate it. Around 1600, the first evergreen was brought indoors and decorated with paper flowers, fruit and gold spangles. Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, is given the credit for lighting the tree with candles to recapture the light of the stars glittering through the evergreen boughs as he traveled home.
By eighteen hundreds Germany, the tradition of the Christmas tree had grown in popularity and began to cross borders. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert brought the tradition to England. In 1848 an engraving of the royal family gathered around their Christmas tree was published in the “Illustrated London News”. Soon every family in England had a tree decorated at Christmas time.
Mid 1800’s Germany found smaller trees less available, so citizens cut the tops from large trees, which stopped their growth and left them useless to the timber industry. Faced with a deforestation problem, the government enacted a law that limited each family to one tree only. Industrious farmers stepped in with a solution and the German feather tree was born.
They had an abundance of goose, turkey, swan and ostrich feathers at their disposal. The feathers, dyed green, split and wrapped around sticks or wire created a convincing replica of an evergreen branch. The branches were drilled or wired to a central ‘trunk’. Families began making the trees to sell at Christmas markets. By making the feather trees, along with paper and spun cotton ornaments to adorn them, these cottage industries helped make them a popular alternative to cutting a live tree.
As Germans immigrated to America in the late nineteenth century, they brought their feather trees with them to remind them of home. Immigrants in Pennsylvania and Texas introduced their trees and traditions to their neighbors and Christmas celebrations spread, along with the decorations for the home. Their popularity grew at the turn of the twentieth century, as an environmental movement against the annual harvest of Christmas trees spread across the U.S. Department stores, such as Woolworth, began to import feather trees and decorations to the American market. In 1913, Sears and Roebuck catalog offered traditional green trees and ornaments for sale to their customers. In the 1920’s blue, red, yellow, pink and bleached white trees were also sold.
The trees were popular through WWII. After the war, feather trees were replaced with other artificial trees. Who can forget the splendor of a revolving aluminum Christmas tree and it’s spinning color wheel! Traditions changed and the feather trees were relegated to attics and closets.
Today, examples of vintage feather trees, along with the decorations, can still be found in antique stores and flea markets. They are collected, treasured and lovingly preserved. The twenty first century has seen a revival of the German feather tree. Renewed interest in vintage and antique Christmas decorations has brought the feather tree back into popularity. New trees to hang these lovely and fragile ornaments on are now being produced.
Ornaments and collections of all kinds can be displayed on a feather tree. The trees are sturdy and made of the many colors of the rainbow. I collect vintage ephemera such as tiny new baby and wedding gift cards. They look so sweet tucked in the branches of a feather tree. Think how special a feather tree, used as a money tree, would make the decorations of a wedding shower. For a new baby’s nursery, adorned with vintage baby shoes and booties or the lovely little gift cards from the early twentieth century.
The trees have unlimited uses as displays for treasured items or look wonderful unadorned. Used in place of a floral centerpiece on a dining room table, they bring a fresh, modern vibe. A grouping of three of varied heights makes a great display.
One of my favorite trees is made from dyed black goose feathers. I love decorating it for Halloween. The vintage ephemera or other small Halloween tidbits, sprinkled with a few spiders, makes a perfect table top arrangement.
From the first time I laid eyes on a feather tree, I have wanted to learn the techniques to make my own. I now hand dye white goose feathers many colors to go with every occasion. The art of making a German feather tree brings with it a connection to those first farmers who, out of necessity and opportunity, created these beautiful trees. I love keeping these techniques alive, but giving them my own twist. Thank you for taking a few minutes from your day to let me tell you about these age old treasures!
My handmade feather trees are available for sale in my Etsy Shop: