In the midst of the pre-holiday frenzy, it can be helpful to pause and take a moment to remember the important thing: Life is fragile, and Christmas is full of dangers. Each year, emergency rooms fill with people who have fallen off ladders while hanging lights, or have been felled by falling Christmas trees, or have just done something stupid after too much eggnog.
Take it as a small comfort, then, that at least your tree decorations aren’t poisonous. That wasn’t always the case: Until the Food and Drug Administration intervened in the 1970s, tinsel was made of lead.
As The Wall Street Journal has reported, some people trace decorative tinsel to the 15th century, while others believe its use began in the mid-1800s, when people began to hang metal strips on their Christmas trees to pick up the surrounding candlelight. Either way, it didn’t really catch on in earnest among U.S. consumers until manufacturers began to mass-produce it around the beginning of the 20th century.
Previously, tinsel—which gets its name from the Old French word estincele, meaning sparkle—had been made of silver, making it affordable to only a few. But at the turn of the century, alternatives made from cheaper metals like aluminum and copper turned a luxury good into a ubiquitous holiday decoration. These materials also didn’t tarnish the way that silver did, meaning they could be reused each year without dulling the shine.