Tinsel has been a popular decoration for more than 400 years. During that time both the production methods and the materials used in the tinsel have evolved. While the oldest tinsel was made of silver, cheaper materials like aluminium and plastic are now the standard. Although we now think of tinsel as a Christmas tree decoration, it has at times also been a popular decoration for religious statues. In addition to loose strands, tinsel is made into garlands and ornaments.
German manufacturers produced the first tinsel in the 1600s, according to "A Christmas Compendium" by J. John. This tinsel was made by pressing silver into very thin sheets and then cutting those sheets into strands. Silver tinsel was first made to mimic blown glass icicles that were popular Christmas tree decorations. Both the silver tinsel and glass icicles reflected the light of candles used before the invention of electric lights to illuminate the tree. Silver tinsel does, however, tarnish over time and is rarely made today.
Pewter and Lead Tinsel
Pewter and lead are cheaper substitutes for silver in tinsel making. They are made into tinsel with the same method used for silver. Lead tinsel is now banned in the United States for health reasons and pewter is rarely used.
Since the early 1900s, tinsel has been made by coating paper with a thin layer of aluminium, then slicing it into strands. This method is much easier than pressing silver, pewter or lead into thin sheets and it made tinsel cheap enough to be purchased by most families. The aluminium-coated paper is, however, flammable. Aluminium tinsel was used to make silver Christmas trees in the 1950s and 1960s, but because they were flammable, they were often lit by spotlights placed below the tree rather than by lights strung in the tree. Aluminium tinsel still can be found in antiques stores and flea markets, but it is rare.
Much of the tinsel made today is made from silver or other colours of plastic. This tinsel is made by extruding thin sheets or ribbons of polyvinyl chloride that are then mechanically sliced and packaged. The use of plastic reduces the cost and, unlike aluminium tinsel, it will not catch fire.
Originally tinsel garland was made by silver-plating thread, then tying it around a wire. The German company Lametta made tinsel this way until they closed in 2003, according to D. Blumchen & Company. Tinsel garland is now made by attaching sheets or strands of tinsel to a central core made of a flexible wire or thin tubing, then slicing the tinsel into thin strands. There are many variations in the thickness of the central core and in the diameter of the final garland.
For centuries, tinsel has been made into ornaments such as stars or balls, usually by wrapping loose strands or garland around a premade frame.