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A Quick History of the Christmas Tree Industry

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

By Maria Hasenstab, Public Affairs Staff

Thinkstock/Evan Sharboneau

For those who erect a large evergreen in their living room every December, some like the convenience, look and predictability of an artificial tree. But others are passionate about the appearance, smell and needles of a real tree.

The exact origins of the Christmas tree industry are a mystery, as noted a 1971 article in the Business Review (a now-retired publication by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia). Some historians trace the tradition of bringing a real evergreen home for Christmas to the year 1500.

The tradition evolved from cutting down a tree in the forest to a time when the demand for Christmas trees outgrew the wild supplies. That’s when individuals went into business growing Christmas trees as a cash crop.

Real Trees Need TLC

In the Business Review article, “About Christmas Trees,” author Evan B. Alderfer told a holiday tale about the evolution of the tree-farming industry.

He noted that the first national survey of Christmas trees was performed in 1948, with about 85 percent of the 21 million Christmas trees being grown in the wild. By the article’s 1971 publication, about half of Christmas trees were grown as a cash crop.

But even in the 1970s, the industry was not without challenges. The author described the potential perils of tree farming, from establishing seedlings to raising crooked crops and dealing with bugs.  

“Growing Christmas trees as a cash crop looks like easy money,” he said, cautioning beginners not to underestimate the amount of “tender loving care and the length of time required before the cash rolls in.”

By the Numbers

Here’s a look at the Christmas tree industry circa 1971:

  • About 45 million live trees sold
  • Retail sales totaled more than $200 million
  • More than 100,000 people employed, including retailers, distributors, seasonal workers and full-time employees

Here’s a comparison from 2016, according to the National Christmas Tree Association:

  • 27 million live trees sold
  • Retail sales totaled more than $2 billion
  • More than 100,000 people employed full- or part-time in the industry

So, a festive tradition grew into an industry that adds up to thousands of jobs and millions of dollars every year.

More Holiday History

You can read Alderfer’s entire article in FRASER, the Federal Reserve Archival System for Economic Research. FRASER is the St. Louis Fed’s digital library of more than half a million speeches and statements, data and statistical publications, government documents, archival collections, photos, maps and books.

Check out even more holiday history from FRASER:

Maria Hasenstab 

Maria Hasenstab is a media relations coordinator with the St. Louis Fed. She works in Public Affairs.

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