U.S. tinsel trail starts in South Philly [photos]

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The closer we get to the holidays, the more you’ll see things shimmer. And a lot of that sparkle is from the age-old decoration tinsel.

Some think it’s garish, others love the tradition, which traces in American origins to Philadelphia.

The U.S. birthplace of tinsel is in South Philly. The company Britestar has manufactured the thin sparkly stuff for three generations now. Judy Kinderman and her son run the company. Her late husband, Sandy, was known as “the Tinsel King.”

“For many, many years, when my husband was very involved in the factory, he would come home and the tinsel icicles would be hanging from his shoes, and he’d bring them into the house all the time, every day,” Kinderman said.

Those Christmas lights that look like icicles you see hanging from porches everywhere? The family has a patent on that, too. But the original wispy stuff is still their No. 1 seller. Kinderman said Britestar still controls 80 percent of the U.S. tinsel market.

“I think it has tapped into a sense of nostalgia, where people today, with all the bells and whistles, and everything is so glittery, we’re still looking for the traditions,” she said.

Tinsel was invented hundreds of years ago in Germany. Back then, it was a luxury good made of real silver. In modern times, the delicate strands were made of lead, until the government declared it a hazard to children. Now, it’s made of shiny PVC.

But some still covet the old-school version.

“Of course we still have customers who come in to this day and ask for the lead tinsels because they were beautiful on the trees and hung very, very, delicately, but that has changed,” Kinderman said.

Her late husband’s grandfather was a jobber who brought holiday decorations to the U.S. from Europe. Soon realizing that tinsel icicles were a hot seller, he launched Britestar in the 1930s focused solely on mass-producing tinsel. Britestar’s hold on the domestic tinsel industry has stayed strong through the decades.

It’s a separate but related company of the cherished Kindy’s Factory Outlet. The 250,000-square-foot tinsel factory factory is right next door, where rows of machines specially made to spew tinsel strands sit. The family is so guarded about the secret of their tinsel that they wouldn’t let a photographer get too close to the machine’s interworkings, lest someone crib their magic.

On the buyer side, Les Gould is the guy to talk to about how the tinsel market has changed. He runs Orman Inc., which sells holiday decorations to 1,500 independent retailers around the country. Tinsel sales have dropped off a cliff, he said.

“I would say, at peak, and to where we are today, our business in that is probably 10 percent of what it used to be,” Gould said.

What’s taking tinsel’s place? High-tech decorations, such as LED reindeer, and “these laser light things are very popular right now,” said Gould, walking into the company’s showroom, where he demonstrated several of the laser gadgets. 

He’s talking about little devices that shoot an array of green or red laser stars that you can project on your yard, or on a tree. He says they’re especially hot in the suburbs.

A reminder, and a raw material for crafters

Kathy Ducato of New Jersey passed by the tinsel while out holiday shopping recently. Decades ago, her family used to bedeck her childhood home with tinsel. These days, though, she thinks tinsel’s kind of tawdry.

“I like ornaments, lots and lots of ornaments, I like bows, and ribbon around the tree, rather than tinsel and garland.” Ducato said. “Yeah, reminds me of when I was a kid, which is nice, but I don’t wanna see it now.”

Yet Britestar’s Kinderman isn’t too worried. She said the company makes enough tinsel every year to string it around the entire globe, and still have a little left over. They’re still shipping thousands of feet of tinsel every year. And, increasingly, the market among online consumers is growing.

“It’s kind of sparkly and shiny and a little bit different. And, you know, obviously draping yourself with tinsel would be a little bit odd,” said Angela Craig of Dallas.

Craig was just putting the finishing touches on a red tinsel purse she’s selling on Etsy. And she’s also offering a gold fuzzy tinsel scarf.

“When you mix it with other things, and the blend, I think, kinda, maybe brings it to a little bit nicer of a level.”

Elsewhere on the craft site, you’ll find green Christmas tinsel dresses, tinsel-topped drink stirrers, and, of course, knitted hedgehogs made out of tinsel yarn.

But to any crafters looking to add to the 166 pages of tinsel oddities found on Etsy, beware: Craig said tinsel has its sharp edges, and can nick you as you weave.

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