Si Spiegel, the WWII hero turned father of artificial Christmas trees, passed away at the age of 99 on January 21 at his home in Manhattan. Spiegel, a valiant Army aviator during the war, was among the last surviving American B-17 pilots of World War II. His granddaughter, Maya Ono, stated that Spiegel has another legacy: He was considered a pioneer in the mass production of artificial Christmas trees.
Born to Jewish immigrants in 1924, Spiegel’s childhood did not include Christmas trees, natural or artificial. His granddaughter mentioned, “I don’t necessarily think my grandpa associated himself with the trees and Christmas as much as he did with the machinery that he built to make the trees, and then later in life, the systems he created to build a successful business and the relationships he cultivated.”
After the war, Spiegel was denied the opportunity to become a commercial pilot due to his religion, as he was told, “We don’t hire Jews.” He then briefly enrolled at City College of New York to become an engineer, but found the academic routine unsettling. Being a machinist, he faced job insecurity due to his role as an organizer for the United Electrical Workers Union.
Spiegel’s foray into the Christmas tree business was a fluke. After his employer unsuccessfully branched out, Spiegel took the initiative to tweak brush-making machines to emulate real trees and patented new production techniques. This led to the mass production of artificial trees, and by the late 1980s, his company was generating annual sales of $54 million and employed 800 workers.
Spiegel’s extraordinary life story also reflects his personal experiences, including his first marriage, involvement in Pete Seeger’s Good Neighbor Chorus, and his marriage to Motoko Ikeda, who he met at a communist-affiliated summer camp.
In the opinion of many, Spiegel’s legacy is not just about the artificial Christmas trees, but also about his resilience, creativity, and ability to turn adversity into opportunity. His determination to succeed, despite facing discrimination and hardship, serves as an inspiration to many.