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What is Tinsel?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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Tinsel is made up of metallic or metallic-colored strands, typically arranged on a string or cord called a garland. It usually is silver or gold and is draped over various items for decoration. Perhaps its most popular use in modern times is as a holiday decoration, such as that that is draped around a Christmas tree. Before the 16th century, it was most often used to adorn sculptures.

Changes in Materials

Although it might sound a bit Germanic, the word "tinsel" actually is derived from an Old French word, estincele, which means "sparkle" or "glimmer." Originally, it was created from extruded strands of real silver, but the metal tarnished quickly. Other metals, such as aluminum, also have been used to create the decorative strands. Modern tinsel typically is made of synthetic strands or fibers, such as extruded polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Tinsel consisting of actual strands of metal was expensive and fragile, so it was used sparingly. Individual strands might have been incorporated into larger wreaths or woven into ornaments, but only the wealthiest citizens would have been able to afford entire garlands to use in decorations.

Advances in manufacturing eventually made it possible to produce cheaper tinsel using aluminized paper. By the early 20th century, many homeowners could afford to buy garlands or individual strands known as icicles made from this material. By the 1950s, using garlands and icicles on Christmas trees was almost as common as using lights on them.

Use in Decoration

Sparkling tinsel garlands are often added to Christmas trees to accent the glow of the lights. They are often wrapped around the individual branches of a tree after the lights have been added but before ornaments are placed. Individual icicle strands could be placed carefully on the tips of the branches or gently tossed onto the tree.

Potential Hazards

Some homeowners who have small pets, especially cats, have discovered that tinsel strands can be irresistible but indigestible temptations for some pets. Although most is non-toxic, it can create health problems if eaten and not eliminated. The bottom portion of the tree can be sprayed with a pet deterrent to prevent dogs or cats from ingesting the icicles or chewing on garlands.

To prevent icicles from being swallowed by small children, they should not be placed within reach of toddlers or infants. The cleanup of individual strands also can be difficult. Pieces might need to be picked up by hand to avoid clogging an electric vacuum cleaner.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to HomeQuestionsAnswered, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By anon234889 — On Dec 14, 2011

Before aluminum came along, lead (Pb) tinsel was more popular. You could tell the difference by the weight of the package. The lead would also smudge onto the fingers, so one would have darker fingers after distributing the lead tinsel.

Surprisingly, one can still buy lead tinsel. It's a product that one should avoid for heath and environmental reasons.

By anon86097 — On May 23, 2010

I hate tinsel! We had to put it on one strand at a time and take it off the same way so we could reuse it. Not much fun for a kid!

By lokithebeak — On Dec 18, 2009

Ah tinsel, how I love the look but dread the weeks of "easter grass everywhere" syndrome that follows. I also tend to spend days making the tinsel placement perfect. Perfect to me at least-everyone else tells me to just leave it alone already lol!

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick

As a frequent contributor to HomeQuestionsAnswered, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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