As Christmas looms on the horizon, most of us have embraced the festive spirit with reckless abandon and succumbed to the tradition of decorating our homes with trees, tinsel and as many flashing lights as we can stand.
The tradition of using tinsel as a decoration is one that can be traced back to the 1600’s. Made with the intention of mimicking ice, tinsel was originally made of strands of silver – perfect for emitting the sparkling effect that ice would in real life. However, as silver can be quick to tarnish other metals were eventually substituted with tin and even lead having been used combined with silver.
By the early 20th Century tinsel had increased in popularity and was used to decorate sculptures and trees, as well as various areas of the home. Improvements in the manufacturing process allowed mass production of cheap aluminium based tinsel for a while, until World War 1 curtailed production.
During the 1950s normal production resumed and tinsel once again gained popularity as a Christmas decoration. As previously mentioned, lead was a popular material for several decades due to the fact it did not tarnish as easily as silver. In the 1960s, however, its use was phased out in the face of concerns about lead poisoning. The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement in August 1971 concluding that lead tinsel posed on unnecessary risk to children exposed to it. After 1972 manufacturers began to stop producing lead tinsel, although the FDA did not actually place a ban on it. As they did not have enough evidence to support this at the time they declared it a health hazard instead and encouraged people to stop using and importing it.
Today, the tinsel we see if generally made from a film coated with a metallic finish, known as polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. Whilst they may not be as heavy, or easy to hang as the older metal tinsel, they come in many colours and sizes and their popularity endures.