Design Moment: Tinsel, 1600s

The original Christmas decoration was made with real silver

After being deeply unfashionable for years, tinsel is making a comeback. Photograph: iStock

After being deeply unfashionable for years, tinsel is making a comeback. Photograph: iStock

 

When and who designed the first tinsel is unknown but it is believed it was invented in the early 1600s in Germany – made of real silver, cut in thin strips and hung from the Christmas tree to reflect the candlelight.

The problems with the design were obvious – it was too expensive and silver tarnishes. Later, tin was used in its place, then strips of copper and aluminium – but the first became too valuable, while aluminium is flammable.

In the early years of the 20th century a German company patented a new, cheaper way of making tinsel – a lead alloy coated in shiny tin – and produced heavy garlands of the stuff for decorations.

But by the 1970s, when the dangers of lead were becoming understood, it went out of production (so fans of antique decoration should beware). Modern tinsel is made of PVC – it’s cheap, cheerful and having spent much of this century as a deeply unfashionable way to decorate, appears to be making something of a comeback with the John Lewis department store – famous at this time of the year for its seasonal TV ad – reporting an 11 per cent jump in this gaudiest of Christmas decorations.