Controlling Christmas: an environmental history of natural and artificial trees
AdvisorGiesen, James C.
CommitteeGreene, Alison Collis
Hersey, Mark D.
Hui, Alexandra E.
Brain, Stephen C.
Embargo TypeComplete embargo for 2 years
Embargo Lift Date2022-12-15
This dissertation argues that from 1880 to 2010 the American natural and artificial Christmas tree industries remodeled themselves after one another. Artificial tree companies modeled their products after the natural tree, hoping to make them look, smell, and feel like the real thing. As these replica trees became popular, scientists, extension agents, and farmers worked to control the natural Christmas tree crop unlike ever before. Those efforts stemmed from a desire to wrest from nature the same kind of idealized silhouettes their plastic counterparts celebrated. Both industries tried to convince the country’s consumers to buy what they were selling. Through Americans’ shifting Christmas tree experience, this dissertation highlights the evolution of particular cultural and environmental ideas. It reveals how both the natural and artificial tree industries intentionally misled the public about the ecological implications of their businesses. Further, it demonstrates that although many Americans believed that the natural Christmas tree ritual could instill the children’s youth with an appreciation of the outdoors or the value of the hard work symbolized by the felling of a tree and dragging it into the living room, by the 1960s such an outlook became contested unlike ever before. As fake tree companies promised convenience, many citizens looked upon their ersatz tree as a symbol of progress and good environmental stewardship just as others worried that modernity would alienate the nation’s youth from the wild spaces and hard work of their ancestors. This dissertation also considers how gender animated the trade by showing how farmers frequently blamed the nation’s women for their reliance on pesticides. That chemical dependency, farmers maintained, was the only way to grow the shapely trees the nation’s women supposedly demanded. Growers also trivialized the work of women within the business in an effort to bolster their own masculine image. As the crop spawned festivals in some communities, locals equated tree bodies with those of women, overtly implying that beauty was most important in both.