All that Glitters: the Shining History of Tinsel Painting

Foil is a ubiquitous household product. You probably have a roll of it at home, moldering somewhere in your kitchen cupboards. Or you might have encountered it on Thanksgiving when you wrapped the leftover turkey with a sheet of aluminum to keep it from spoiling.

But aside from being a kitchen product, aluminum and tin foil are everywhere. During the holidays, people decorate trees with strips of tinsel. Some of your favorite products might have foil labels. But these staples have a long and surprisingly artistic history. One lost form of art used foil from unlikely sources to create dazzling imagery: tinsel painting.

But before you can take a plunge into the surprisingly complicated methods and the exciting history of tinsel painting, you need to learn about the history of tin and aluminum foil.

The History of Tin and Aluminum Foil

Tin and aluminum have been used in packaging long before companies used automatic hot-stamping equipment to make their products more glamorous. Tin was the predecessor of aluminum for several decades. Aside from being the original components of canned food for army rations, tin was also used to make shiny decorations (which is why they’re called ‘tinsel’).

But manufacturers of the 18th and 19th centuries also used tin to guarantee the freshness of their merchandise. Druggists would use tin foil to create packages for delicate creams, and confectioners would use brightly colored tin wrappers for their bonbons and sweets. Most famously, tin foil served as the lining of cigarette packages for decades before being replaced by aluminum in the 1920s. And it’s from these discarded lining that a surprisingly vibrant artform sprung from.

A Shiny Diversion

christmas ball

Women in the 19th century weren’t expected to do a lo except to care for their homes. And the focus on taking care of their homes and remaining domestic extended to what was thought as acceptable outlets of creativity. And the perfect outlet turned out to be tinsel painting.

As far back as 1832, women would collect the shiny wrappers of their beauty products, the packaging of their children’s sweets, and the lining of their husband’s cigarette packets to make beautiful artwork. And these tinsel paintings are surprisingly complicated to make.

First, the artist must paint the lines of their chosen imagery on one side of a piece of clear glass. This is because the image must be painted in reverse. Each detail must be added layer by layer, the images on the foreground is painted first and the background last. Once all the painted components were completed, they then applied the collected tinsel on designated areas to create shiny metallic effects.

For example, if an artist desired to paint a woman in a shimmering golden gown, they’d paint the entire scene but exclude the dress. Then they’d glue a piece of gold tin foil on the place, completing the illusion. Finally, resin is applied to the painting and secure it on a cardboard back.

Although the practice of tinsel painting was established as a suitable way for women to entertain themselves while keeping house, it allowed them to explore their creativity in a stifling society. The complexity of tinsel paintings also speaks to the ingenuity and cunning of their artists. The practice might have died down in the past century, but the remaining examples are testaments to the enduring passion and resourcefulness of women.

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