‘Mid-Century Magic’ at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures

The Mid-Century Magic display includes 18 trees from the Pruitts’ collection, including this blue and silver one.

Exhibit explores the history and popularity of aluminum Christmas trees

Objects tell stories, take us from this moment and place us back in time, stirring wonder and nostalgia. Dusting off an old toy or game from our childhood can instantly transport us back to those moments of awe and innocence. The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures is filled with these nostalgic trinkets.

With more than 95,000 pieces spanning centuries, there are countless histories for guests to get lost in. Each piece has its own story, as Curator/Sr. Manager of Learning and Engagement Madeline Rislow explains, “I think that what we’re trying to do every single day is just tell stories. The objects are important, but they’re also a component of a way to impel people to share their stories in different ways.” Throughout this holiday season, the museum will zoom in on a craze from the 1950s and ’60s in the exhibit “Mid-Century Magic: A Tale of Toys and (Aluminum Christmas) Trees.”

Stephen and Mary Pruitt

Collectors and filmmakers Stephen and Mary Pruitt approached the museum with their extensive collection of mid-century aluminum Christmas trees. The collection began after their daughters went to college and the Pruitts decided to transition to artificial trees. However, the couple did not want some run-of-the-mill tree, but something steeped in character. This led them to the aluminum tree, a cultural phenomenon that lasted from 1959, when its patent was issued, until 1965, when, according to Stephen Pruitt, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” effectively killed the craze. In it, Lucy pushed Charlie to get a pink aluminum tree, yet he opted for the only real tree on the lot — the infamous sparse tree that captured the hearts of so many.

With the film’s immediate popularity, aluminum trees fell out of fashion, but what caused them to be a craze in the first place? The aluminum Christmas tree was wrapped up in a time of both joy and fear at the United States’ immense technological progress. It was the atomic age in the midst of the Cold War. The dream of outer space was tangible. “The ‘good ol’ atomic spirit’ seemed to permeate everything it touched — from houses to housewares, from automobiles to aircraft — including that most secular of sacred holidays: Christmas,” explains Stephen Pruitt. “And I am convinced that absolutely nothing speaks of both the innocence and wonder of that long-vanished time more eloquently than the aluminum Christmas tree.”

This red and silver tree from the collection of Stephen and Mary Pruitt is on view in the exhibit “Mid-Century Magic: A Tale of Toys and (Aluminum Christmas) Trees” at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures.

“Mid-Century Magic” will tap into this sense of innocence, wonder and nostalgia. Rislow explains, “The popularity of the mid-century period has a nostalgia element for the people that actually lived through it, but there’s also a great resurgence.” In the exhibit, guests can traipse through an aluminum forest of sorts, with 17 of the 18 trees grouped together. Throughout the exhibit, mid-century toys like Barbie, GI Joe, Battleship and Operation will be on display, representing presents under the tree.

The back corner will be transformed into a mid-century living room, complete with a television looping “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The centerpiece of this living room is the Pruitts’ self-snowing aluminum tree, which operates with a vacuum that causes artificial snow to shoot from the top.

“Mid-Century Magic” offers a slice of holiday nostalgia, yet there is much more to see at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures. The Miniature Art Museum contains a specially designed atrium by Chris Toledo and rotating miniature artworks. There are eight collection cases that are filled by collectors from all over, who, like the Pruitts, get to share their passion and stories with guests. Expressing this deep connection, Marketing Strategist Landon Collis says, “I love when I’m walking out from the office space and I see a dad, probably in his 30s now, with his son talking about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles together. I see the same storytelling in nostalgic reinvention.”

The exhibit is curated by Madeline Rislow, curator/senior manager of learning and engagement; Amy McKune, curator/senior manager of collections; and Camille Johnson, assistant curator.

“Mid-Century Magic: A Tale of Toys and (Aluminum Christmas) Trees” opens Nov. 20 and runs through Jan. 29 at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, 5235 Oak St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Monday. On Dec. 16 and 23, guests will be able to craft and decorate their own aluminum trees. Stephen and Mary Pruitt will give talks on aluminum trees throughout the exhibit’s run. For more information, 816.235.8000 or toyandminiaturemuseum.org.

photos courtesy of Stephen and Mary Pruitt

Emily Spradling

Emily Spradling is an adult English-language instructor, freelance writer and founding member of the arts/advocacy organization, No Divide KC. She is particularly interested in the intersections of art, culture and LGBTQ+ issues.

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