As with many modern traditions, the history of tinsel is somewhat murky, and we don’t really know who invented it. Some accounts trace it back to 15th century Germany, others date it only to the 19th, but either way people agree that tinsel was originally made out of silver. The precious metal was hammered out into thin strands and hung upon the Christmas tree, shimmering in the candlelight.
Silver has the major drawback of easily tarnishing, not to mention the prohibitive price such a decoration would have fetched. Thus, when early 20th century manufacturers arrived at cheaper alternatives, tinsel was embraced by many. The two main alternatives were copper and aluminium, both short-lived, as strands of aluminium film proved to be incredibly flammable and copper become too valuable during World War II to be used in Christmas decor.
This 1934 German Christmas postcard shows a child probably enjoying the tin-covered lead tinsel popular at the time.
IMAGE: Wolf G., Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Thus enter lead alloy coated in shiny tin, the 20th century tinsel of choice, patented in 1904 by a German company known today as EppsteinFOILS. Known as Stanniol Lametta, this product was more hefty than modern plastic tinsel, and was strung across Christmas tree branches in long strands reminiscent of icicles. Its production and use was dramatically wound back in the 1970s as people caught on to the toxic properties of lead.
Nostalgic aficionados of this ‘heavy vintage tinsel’ can still hunt down packages of the original product on places like Ebay and in antique stores, but if you decide to opt for this variety, make sure to handle it with care. And certainly avoid ingesting the stuff.