A Christmas tree market in front of the Barclay Street Station circa 1895. Photo via the Library of Congress
The convenience of walking to the corner bodega and haggling for a Christmas tree is something most of us take for granted, but this seasonal industry is one that actually predates Christmas’ 1870 establishment as a national holiday and continues to be a one-of-a-kind business model today. In fact, in 1851, a tree stand set up for $1 at the west side’s Washington Market became the nation’s very first public Christmas tree market, the impetus behind it being a way to save New Yorkers a trip out of town to chop down their own trees. Ahead, find out the full history of this now-national trend and how it’s evolved over the years.
The roots of the Christmas tree industry
The first electrically-illuminated Christmas tree in 1882, courtesy of the Thomas Edison Museum
At a townhouse on East 36th Street in 1882, the first Christmas tree to ever be adorned with electrical lights was lit, paving the way for the frenzy surrounding tree lightings around the world today. As an engineer and vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, as well as Thomas Edison’s business partner, Edward Hibberd Johnson, was quite familiar with light bulbs. While festively decorating his apartment ahead of the holiday that year, Johnson had a very bright idea: wiring 80 red, white and blue light bulbs together around the tree and placing it in his parlor window.
More history this way
For traditionalists who relish the ritual of bringing home the perfect evergreen, the idea of any man-made alternative has little appeal. But just as many tree-seekers are happy to anchor their December decor with a Christmas tree that doesn’t shed and doesn’t need to be sent to the curb when the season’s over. The options are as varied as the reasons we love them: Some literally take up no space, perfect for tiny apartments. Others are perfectly modern, rustic, retro or Nordic to reflect the style of their owners. Below are 15 fun, festive, sustainable and re-usable alternatives to pine and fir.
deck the halls, this way
The holidays turn New York City into a bright, illuminated wonderland that even the biggest Scrooge among us can enjoy. While there are plenty of events to choose from, like alternative holiday markets and glittering art installations, many of these activities can be jampacked with tourists. For those looking to learn more about their own holiday traditions, or understand others, there are lots of low-key, educational events perfect for history buffs looking for a quieter holiday experience. Ahead, check out 6sqft’s guide to the best holiday events in New York City that come with a historical twist, from Christmas to Hanukkah to Kwanzaa.
This way for our top-10 picks
Christmas shoppers on 6th Avenue (1910) via Library of Congress
Black Friday marks the start of frantic holiday shopping, the day when retailers offer their best deals of the season to lure in eager shoppers. While some gift-givers now choose to digitally add items to shopping carts from the comfort of bed instead, many still line up outside of stores at the crack of dawn in search of major discounts. This is not a modern phenomenon, as these photographs from the Library of Congress of 20th century New York City reveal. Like today, New Yorkers of the early 1900s were drawn to the magical window shops and displays. Ahead, explore vintage photos of shoppers browsing New York City stores looking for the perfect presents, postcards and more.
See the photos here
On December 21, 1912, a 60-foot-tall tree arrived by horse-drawn truck from the Adirondacks to provide Manhattan’s Madison Square Park with the glow of 2,300 colored electric bulbs. The twinklers were donated by the Edison Company, and the tree was the first of its kind: Having a Christmas tree in one’s living room was a familiar custom, but a tree outside in a public park was something new.
Get the whole history right this way
Google Maps introduced a street-view look at NYC’s holiday windows a couple years ago, but their Shopping app has now completely revamped the feature, launching this year as Window Wonderland. The interactive tool lets users take a high-resolution digital tour of 18 stores, including audio tours from their creative directors and real-life background street noise. See the 34 hand-sculpted animals in Lord & Taylor’s “Enchanted Forest,” explore the candy and couture at Saks Fifth Avenue’s “Land of 1000 Delights,” or see the gang from South Park at Barney’s.
One of the many signs that it’s Christmastime in the city is the sight, sound and scent of the city’s sidewalk tree vendors. The annual arrival of the (mostly) jovial tree purveyors reminds us that bell-ringing Santas, office secret Santas, and bar-crawling Santas aren’t far behind. Each year thousands of trees are sold to New Yorkers to help them deck the halls for the season. But what about the people who sell those trees? A new documentary film, “Tree Man,” gives us a peek at the lives of the city’s tree sellers, many of whom leave families behind to camp out in sometimes harsh living conditions for the sake of their business.
Watch a trailer for ‘Tree Man’
$1,000, as the Post notes, could pay for more than 600 meals for the homeless at the Bowery Mission, or 25 holiday gifts for in-need New Yorkers through the Winter Wishes program. It could also get you an “exotic” white fir Christmas tree off the street in Greenwich Village. Sixteen-year tree saleswoman Heather Neville, who runs a stand at Seventh Avenue and 11th Street, is charging $77 per foot for a 13-foot tree, which equals $750. Add to that a $200 stand, $25 delivery and setup fee, and $20 for the three men doing the job, and you’ve got yourself a four-figure Christmas tree.
If you think this is bad, just wait
6sqft’s ongoing series The Urban Lens invites photographers to share work exploring a theme or a place within New York City. In this installment, award-winning photographers James and Karla Murray return with a look inside Rolf’s German Restaurant, known for its over-the-top Christmas decorations. Are you a photographer who’d like to see your work featured on The Urban Lens? Get in touch with us at [email protected].
Beginning the last week of September, a six-man team starts the process of adorning Rolf’s German Restaurant with 15,000 Christmas ornaments, 10,000 lights, and thousands of icicles. By the first of November, the process of turning this historic Murray Hill restaurant into a holiday wonderland is complete, attracting both locals and tourists who are eager to see the one-of-a-kind display of Victorian-style decorations.
We recently paid a visit to Rolf’s, capturing everything from dolls found in New England antique shops to 19th century German ball ornaments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. And we’ve shared an interview with owner Bob Maisano where he talks about the building’s past life as a speakeasy during Prohibition, German history in NYC, and what makes Rolf’s a unique holiday destination.
All the photos and the interview with Bob