Tinsel, angel hair and artificial snow

While the first Christmas trees were still decorated with apples, nuts and sweets, glass ornaments from Lauscha in Thuringia were added, as a further means of decoration, around the middle of the 19th century. But for some, a colourfully decorated tree simply lacked the wintry flair of a snowy Christmas season. Resourceful inventors, whose names have unfortunately not survived, came up with various solutions over the course of time. This is how tinsel; angel hair and artificial snow came into being. They were suitable for giving the trees in the rooms a wintry aura.

The word Lametta (tinsel) is much older than the Christmas tree decorations we associate with it. The word "Lametta" comes from the Latin word "lamina", which means tablet; it can also be translated as little tablets or leaves. In the past, tinsel was generally understood to mean finely drawn gold or silver wire or copper wire that had been gilded or, if desired, silver-plated by galvanic means and rolled (flattened) extremely thinly between polished steel rollers. In Germany, terms such as "Plätt", "Lahn", "Lamé" or "Lametta" were used for this type of wire drawing. This form is said to have originated in the French city of Lyon, which is why such wires were first called Lyonese and later Leonese wares. In Germany, Nuremberg, and the surrounding area (Allersberg and Roth) were the centres of production. Initially, such wires were mainly needed in the clothing and trimming industry (a collective term for all kinds of cords, ribbons, decorative ribbons, lace, tassels, etc.). In the factories, they were used, among other things, to cover buttons, to weave braids and tassels, and to knit underarm pieces and sashes.

There is good evidence of when tinsel threads first appeared on the market as Christmas tree decorations. It was around the years 1877/1878. A reference to this can be found in the magazine "Gewerbehalle. Organ für den Fortschritt in allen Zweigen der Kunstindustrie" (1879). It mentions that for about two years tinsel had been "used to decorate fir trees at Christmas". Presumably, tinsel was first offered to buyers at the Leipzig Spring Sample Fair (that's what it was really called in the beginning). At this sample fair, Attrappen, artificial flowers, cotillon and carnival articles, as well as all forms of Christmas tree ornaments, were offered alongside many other things. The fair in Leipzig was the most important in the entire German Empire. At the spring fair, buyers ordered Christmas tree decorations for the coming Christmas season.

The numerous advertisements in the newspapers in 1878 provide good evidence of how tinsel became a bestseller as "the latest tree decoration". In the beginning, some sellers also called tinsel "Christkindlein's Silberhaar" (Christ child’s silver hair). It was advertised as "long, thin, incombustible silver wire threads which are scattered on the green branches. When the lights are lit, the tree shines as if it were frosted with silver from top to bottom".

Weihnachtsbaum mit Lametta aus dem Jahre 1916
Christmas tree with tinsel from 1916
Weihnachtsbaum mit Lametta um das Jahr 1925
Christmas tree with tinsel around 1925
Weihnachtsbaum mit Lametta aus dem Jahre 1932
Christmas tree with tinsel from 1932
Weihnachtsbaum mit einzelnen Lametta-Strängen
Christmas tree with individual strands of tinsel

Unfortunately, it is not yet known who invented tinsel as a Christmas tree decoration. The advertisements in the newspapers are of no help in this respect, as they were almost exclusively placed by resellers. So far, I have only been able to identify the Dittmar brothers, based in Heilbronn, as early producers, because they offered tinsel from their own production as brilliant Christmas tree decorations for sale as early as 1878[i]. Tinsel threads came in different lengths. They were sold with a length of up to 160 cm. The advent of tinsel was viewed critically by the glass industry in Sonneberg, Lauscha and the surrounding area. Around 1890, they complained that many buyers preferred to buy tinsel instead of their glass Christmas tree ornaments to decorate the Christmas trees. This can be seen in the example photos. There was so much tinsel hanging on the trees that there was no room for other Christmas tree decorations.

In the beginning, tinsel consisted of an extremely finely rolled out tin foil that was coated on both sides with a lead-silver alloy or with a tin coating (so-called tin foil tinsel). The threads cut from it had a width of one and a half to two millimetres. This tinsel was so popular, among other things, because it was heavy and therefore hung well on the tree.

The producers bundled the goods in kilo braids and sent them to the corresponding wholesalers. There, the tinsel was in turn packed by home workers in portions into bags, envelopes, or boxes.

However, tinsel was not only hung on the tree as loose strips but was also material for other forms of Christmas tree decorations. Tinsel garlands or tinsel stars soon became popular with a larger group of buyers.

Die Firma Wolf in Fürth war einer der Lametta Hersteller.
The Wolf company in Fürth was one of the tinsel manufacturers.
Beispiel einer damaligen Eislametta Werbung.
Example of a former ice tinsel advert.

On 20 June 1891, the Coburg newspaper reported that a manufacturer had created a new Christmas tree decoration. He took coloured transparent glass balls and filled them with tinsel. When these balls were illuminated by sunlight or candlelight, they glittered from within, which is said to have created a particularly beautiful effect.

Around 1900, coloured tinsel varieties came onto the market. To manufacture them, the tinsel threads were drawn through quick-drying varnish. In addition to the coloured versions, patterned tinsel was also available. In this case, patterned rollers rather than smooth rollers were used to flatten the wires.

Tinsel quickly developed into an international export hit. One of the first big buyers of tinsel was Russia. Numerous trees in the Tsarist Empire were decorated in this way. However, in the course of time, Russia developed its own tinsel production, which even exported its tinsel to Germany towards the end of the 19th century. Another major buyer of tinsel was the United States until 1914. The First World War prevented further exports and as a result, the US established its own successful production.

Tinsel was not only used for Christmas trees. As early as 1882, the Bavarian Fishing Association suggested decorating fishing lures with tinsel, as fish would react to the glitter under water. In India, on the other hand, tinsel threads were used for religious festivities[ii].

If tinsel was long considered an incombustible Christmas tree decoration, the fire brigade had to discover in 1916 that contrary to this assumption, the so-called "ice tinsel" would burn very easily, like magnesium. The use of these special tinsel decorations was strongly discouraged for fire safety reasons[iii].

In the 1930s, there were tinsel productions in Germany in Breslau, in Allersberg (near Nuremberg), in Roth (near Nuremberg), in Frankfurt a. M., in Kirchhain (Niederlausitz) and in the Harz Mountains. Tinsel consumption in the German Reich was about 750 tonnes per year. In 1937, according to export statistics, about 20 tonnes of it were exported to the United States, the Netherlands and Switzerland, as well as to Great Britain, Canada, Denmark, Sweden and Mexico[iv].       

Werbeblatt mit Lametta Produkten der Firma Carl Eckart mit Sitz in Fürth aus dem Jahre 1926
Advertising leaflet with tinsel products from the Carl Eckart company based in Fürth from 1926
Werbeblatt eines unbekannten Herstellers mit Christbaumschmuck aus Metall und Lametta zwischen 1920 und 1930
Advertising sheet from an unknown manufacturer with Christmas tree decorations made of metal and tinsel between 1920 and 1930

Shortly before the Second World War, attempts were made to reduce the lead and tin content of the tinsel threads, as these materials were urgently needed elsewhere in industry. For this reason, attempts were made to replace the tin-lead tinsel with aluminium tinsel. However, the aluminium tinsel could not prevail because of its light weight. It was five times lighter than the conventional tinsel and flew off the tree at the slightest draught. Another shortcoming was that it curled too easily.

In 2015, tinsel production in Germany was discontinued. Demand had been falling steadily since the Second World War. For many, tinsel is simply too old-fashioned and not environmentally friendly. Today's tinsel comes mainly from China.

Angel hair

Closely connected with tinsel is the so-called angel hair, which was also called angel curls, fairy hair or Mary's hair. Some manufacturers had their own name for it and called the threads "Gold- und Silberhaar" (gold and silver hair)[v]. Strictly speaking, there are two different types of angel hair used as Christmas tree decorations. One is made of tinsel and the other is made of glass wool. Let us turn first to the one made of tinsel.


Weihnachtsbaum mit Lametta-Girlande und Engelshaar im Jahr 1930
Christmas tree with tinsel garland and angel hair in 1930
Weihnachtsbaum mit Lametta und Engelshaar
Christmas tree with tinsel and angel hair

When 'normal' tinsel came on the market in 1878, it was already possible to buy angel hair, but it was not yet called that. It was simply offered as tinsel, but a description from an advertisement in 1878 already illustrates the difference to 'normal' tinsel: "this [tinsel] ornament consists of fine, genuine silver-plated metal threads, which - when slightly pulled apart - hung around the branches of the Christmas tree in a net or cobweb-like manner, reveal an extraordinarily beautiful and dazzling effect". Whereas the tinsel threads were normally simply thrown over the branches of the trees. Christmas trees decorated in this way really did give the impression of being hidden under a spider's web.

The earliest advertisement I have found so far offering 'angel hair' by name in gold, silver or copper dates from 1882. The length of the threads varied greatly. Commonly sold were bundles of 90-100 metres, but there were also variants up to 1,000 metres long. Around 1890, the choice of colours was extended. For example, anyone who wanted, could buy angel hair packed in envelopes in all the colours of the rainbow. There were also variations in the embossing of the threads. There was a choice of smooth or ribbed.

Werbung aus dem Jahr 1925
Advertising from the year 1925

As already mentioned, a variant made of spun glass (spun glass / glass wool) was also offered under the name "angel hair". Here, too, there was a choice of different colours (for example, beige, blue, green and red). At the beginning of the First World War, due to a lack of raw materials (metal was needed in the industry), angel hair was mainly made from glass, of which there was plenty available. Three kilograms of glass shards yielded about 16,000 kilometres of spun threads[vi]. Originally, it was made by the glassblowers. At the end of the 1930s, however, glass threads were obtained automatically through the industry.

Foto um 1920
Foto um 1920


Another popular decoration for the Christmas tree was and still is artificial icicles. As early as 1868, icicles made of sugar were offered for sale by a Coburg confectioner to decorate Christmas trees. The earliest reference to glass icicles that I have found so far dates back to 1875. The Regensburg glassblower Chr. Kappelmeyer advertised his ice glass and icicles as the "newest Christmas tree decoration"[vii]

In the course of time, glass icicles were made by many glassblowers. If we now take magazine advertisements as an indicator of the spread of icicles as Christmas tree decorations, we can see that their triumphal march began around 1880. From this period onwards, numerous offers for "icicles made of crystal" can be traced. Shape, size, and colour varied.

Foto um 1940
Photo around 1920
Weihnachtsbaum mit künstlichem Schnee und Eiszapfen aus dem Jahre 1914
Christmas tree with artificial snow and icicles from 1914
Beispiel verschiedener gläserner Eiszapfen
Example of various glass icicles
Werbung um 1910
Advertising around 1910

In the middle of the 20th century, there were even plastic variants, but they could never achieve the flair of the glass originals.

Another variant of icicles are those made of embossed cardboard. There are different designs. Some are gold or silver coloured; others are painted white and sprinkled with selenite or mica.

Eiszapfen weiß (2)

Artificial snow

To bring the Christmas spirit into one’s home, people in the 19th century came up with other ideas to decorate the branches of Christmas trees in a wintry way.

One popular variant was made of cotton wool (sometimes also called 'snow wool'). The idea was to give the appearance of a snow-covered tree that had been brought straight from the forest into the living room. The only problem was that cotton wool burned easily. Various manufacturers, such as the Munich company Conrad Gautsch (Chemical Laboratory for Flame Retardants) or the German Imprägnierungs=Anstalt (impregnation institut) in Mügeln near Dresden, therefore, came up with the idea of producing an impregnated, non-flammable cotton wool and putting it on the market under various names such as "snowflakes", "flickering cotton wool", "Christmas tree snow" or "artificial snow".

Christmas tree and garlands decorated with cotton wool
Christmas tree in 1911
Christmas tree around 1920

Advertisements in newspapers from the time indicate that this type of Christmas tree decoration came onto the market around 1880. Even representatives of the fire brigade advocated the use of impregnated cotton wool on Christmas trees as early as 1881[viii]. This would greatly reduce the risk of fires, which occur frequently during the Christmas season. Some cotton wool variants were additionally sprinkled with glittering Marienglas (selenite / crystalline transparent gypsum mined in Thuringia) for better effect on the tree. The advantage of the ground selenite was its high brilliance.

Weihnachtsbaum mit künstlichem Schnee und Lametta
Christmas tree with artificial snow and tinsel
Weihnachtsbaum mit künstlichem Schnee und Lametta
Christmas tree with artificial snow and tinsel
Werbung für Asbest-Schnee um 1910
Advertisement for asbestos snow around 1910

Around 1890, so-called asbestos snow came onto the market. It was available in at least two variants. One was in the form of asbestos itself, which was well suited as artificial snow because of its flaky, silky appearance . The other was cotton wool impregnated with asbestos, which was also sold as asbestos snow[ix]. Since the danger of asbestos was not yet known at that time, it was openly offered as 'asbestos snow'.[x] To emphasise the effect of snow even more, the asbestos snow was sprinkled with selenite.


Another variation for branch decoration was the illusion of hoarfrost on the branches, which also came on the market around 1881. Here, the branches were painted over with glue and sprinkled with a different kind of artificial snow. The products had such promising names as "diamond glitter" or "glorious sparkling winter frost". This was usually finely ground selenite. Every branch sprinkled in this way sparkled wonderfully in the candlelight. There was and is no danger of fire from selenite. As soon as it comes into direct contact with fire, it turns white and disintegrates into powder.

Werbepostkarte um 1920
Advertising postcard around 1920
Werbepostkarte 1918
Advertising postcard 1918

Another way of adding lustre to the branches was metal powder, which came onto the market around 1890 as "Streu" or "Streuglanz"[xi]. It was nothing more than tinsel chopped up by machines. To decorate the branches with it, they were coated with gelatine or another adhesive and then sprinkled with the crushed tinsel.

[i] Deggendorfer Donaubote. Heimatblatt für Deggendorf und das Donau-Wald-Gebiet vom 18.12.1878, S. 404.

[ii] Münchner neueste Nachrichten. 82 Jg. (1929), Ausgabe vom 22.12.1929.

[iii] Erdinger Anzeiger. Zugleich Lokalblatt für Wartenberg, Taufkirchen, Isen. Jg. 1916, Nr. 154 (Samstag, 23. Dezember).

[iv] Salzburger Volksblatt, Jg. 1938, Folge 193 (Dienstag, 20. Dezember 1938), S. 5.

[v] Joh. Gg. Heckel’s sel. Erben, Allersberg bei Nürnberg. Werbung im Adressbuch der Stadt Nürnberg (1888), S. 110.

[vi]  So laut einem Bericht im Völkischen Beobachter vom 24. Dezember 1939.

[vii] Regensburger Anzeiger: General Anzeiger und Handelszeitung vom 19.12.1875.

[viii] Kreis-Feuerwehrzeitung für Unterfranken, XI. Jg. (1884), Heft 11, S. 100.

[ix] Tannenbaumschnee, in: Lavantthaler Bote, 12. Jg. (1898), Nr. 4819. November 1898

[x] Ein Hersteller war unter anderem die Münchner Firma Metzeler & Co. Vgl. den Hinweis in der Münchner Stadt-Zeitung, 4. Jg. (1892), Heft Nr. 188 (20. Februar), S. 14.

[xi] Ein Hersteller war Joh. Gg. Heckel’s sel. Erben, Allersberg bei Nürnberg. Er stellte unter anderem auch Lametta, Gold- und Silberhaar her. Werbung im Adressbuch der Stadt Nürnberg (1888), S. 110.