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A Few Facts About The Origin Of Electric Christmas Lights

Dec 24, 2003

12-23-03 -- Although they did not become popular until after World War II (thanks to the extension of electrification throughout rural America in the 1940s), electric Christmas lights have a long history. And, like so much else in the history of electricity, it all began with Thomas Edison.

First, a disclaimer: A persistent legend credits Ralph Morris as the inventor of electric Christmas lights. The story goes that Ralph, seeing his son push a candle over on a Christmas tree, nearly set the tree on fire and ended up singeing his hair. Ralph came up with the idea of pulling the lights from an old telephone switchboard and wiring them on a tree, and thusly "inventing" the electric Christmas tree lights. This incident is actually true, but it happened in 1908 -- more than a quarter century after a close associate of Edison’s actually did the inventing.

What really happened: It all began in 1882 -- just three after the incandescent bulb was invented -- when Edward Johnson, Thomas Edison’s friend and partner in the Edison Illumination Company in New York City, hand-wired 80 “patriotic” red, white and blue bulbs and wound them around a rotating evergreen tree in his home. The New York press was invited to come over and take a look but, sensing a publicity stunt, refused. However, the event was covered by a reporter from the Detroit Post and Tribune, and he’s what he said:

"Last evening I walked over beyond Fifth Avenue and called at the residence of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison´s electric company. There, at the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect. It was brilliantly lighted with many colored globes about as large as an English walnut and was turning some six times a minute on a little pine box. There were eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue. As the tree turned, the colors alternated, all the lamps going out and being relit at every revolution. The result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white, blue, white, red, blue -- all evening. I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight -- one can hardly imagine anything prettier. The ceiling was crossed obliquely with two wires on which hung 28 more of the tiny lights; and all the lights and the fantastic tree itself with its starry fruit were kept going by the slight electric current brought from the main office on a filmy wire. The tree was kept revolving by a little hidden crank below the floor which was turned by electricity. It was a superb exhibition."

Despite the report in the Detroit paper, however, few Americans heard of electric Christmas lights -- until 1895, when President Grover Cleveland commissioned a White House tree lighted with Edison bulbs. It was a huge specimen, featuring more than a hundred multicolored lights.

Finally, the general public was taking notice, and it was not long afterward that members of "high society" were hosting Christmas Tree parties. They were grand events indeed, as a typical lighted tree of the early 1900s cost upwards of $300 (more than $2000 in today’s dollars), including the generator and wireman´s services.

Still out of range for the average American family, smaller and less expensive battery-operated lighting strings were decorating the trees of those adventurous enough to do the wiring. In fact, an article in Popular Electricity Magazine explained how to light the family tree with battery-powered electric lights. The back pages had instructions on ordering the necessary wire, sockets and light bulbs. General Electric even offered miniature light bulbs for rent in some cities, as an alternative to an outright purchase of the expensive lamps.

But electric tree lighting was not to be truly practical until the General Electric Company came to the rescue in 1903. That year, GE offered a pre-assembled lighting outfit for the first time. Still quite expensive at $12 (the total weekly wage for an average worker then and the equivalent of about $80 today), many department stores in the larger, electrified cities would rent outfits for the season for $1.50. Called a "festoon,” the outfit consisted of eight green pre-wired porcelain sockets, eight Edison miniature base colored glass lamps, and a handy screw-in plug for easy attachment to a nearby wall or ceiling light socket. However, GE was unable to patent their string (or festoon), and suddenly the market was open to anyone who wanted to manufacture the strings.

More About Electric Christmas Tree Lights

The person responsible for popularizing Christmas tree lighting is Albert Sadacca. A tragic fire in New York City in 1917, caused by the continuing practice of lighting the highly flammable tree with candles, gave 15-year-old Albert Sadacca an idea. Now it just so happened that Albert’s family, who had come from Spain, had a novelty business selling wicker cages with imitation birds in them that lit up.

Albert suggested to his parents that they begin making electric lights for Christmas trees. They had lots of bulbs on hand, and it would be much safer than using candles. The Sadaccas thought Albert had a good idea, but only one hundred strings of electric Christmas tree lights sold in the first year. After Albert thought of painting the bulbs red, green, and other colors instead of using plain glass, business picked up sharply.

Albert became the head of a multi-million dollar company. The company started by Albert Sadacca and his two brothers, Henri and Leon was NOMA Electric Company the largest Christmas lighting company in the world for all of the years of its operation prior to 1965.

Since public distribution of electricity was not yet common in the early years of the 20th century, those living outside of a major city who desired one of those wonderful illminated trees had to supply their own electric power, typically from household generators. In addition, the services of a "wireman" had to be obtained, as few people were willing or even able to undertake the job of hand wiring all of the lights on the tree themselves. Electric socket outfits had not been invented, and it was a tedious task at best to wire all of the lights necessary to illuminate a room-sized tree.

The earliest Christmas lighting outfits used screw-in current taps. In the beginning of the century, American homes wired for electricity were wired for lighting circuits only, and usually only a single light bulb socket was provided for each room. Any additional electrical devices had to be powered from the ceiling outlet. As electricity became more popular, wall lighting as well as ceiling lighting became popular, and suddenly lighting the family Christmas tree with electricity was a bit easier.

In fact, the bladed wall plug that we are familiar with today was actually a development of a device that was originally used to facilitate the interconnection of stings or festoons of Christmas lights. Some prototypes of this device were in use as early as 1917, and it was patented as the “Tachon” connector in 1924. The 1924 Tachon started out as a screw-in type of connector with a safety cover but soon evolved into the two parallel blade type.

A Few More Miscellaneous Historical Facts

• Many of the earliest Christmas lights burned so hot that they were about as dangerous as the candles they were advertised to replace.

• Many of the earliest figural light bulbs representing fruit, flowers and holiday figures were blown in molds that were also used to make small glass ornaments. These figural lights were painted by toy makers.

• Most figural Christmas lights were made out of milk glass for a specific reason. The paint used on the lights did not adhere well to glass, and as the lights were turned on and off, the constant expansion and contraction of the glass helped the paint to flake off even faster. It was discovered that milk glass looks better than clear glass when the lights have flaking paint, so the industry quickly and almost exclusively switched over to the use of the white milk glass by the late 1920s.

• It was a common but incorrect belief in the early days of electric Christmas lighting that Christmas light bulbs would burn longer in an upright position. Early decorators spent a lot of time making sure that the lamps were positioned upright on the tree.

• True outdoor Christmas lights were not introduced to the public until 1927-- almost 45 years after the first electric tree lights were demonstrated. There were sets offered for sale as safe to use outside before 1927, but they were small, dangerous and extremely impractical for the average family.

• In 1927, General Electric first used the large, intermediate size base for their new outdoor Christmas light bulbs. The outfits that were sold consisted of seven lamps and were wired in parallel so that the failure of a single lamp would not affect the rest. The earliest of these lights are round, but by 1928 they were the familiar swirled or flame shape. Also, the early lamps were painted on the outside, but later issues feature a scratchproof inside color. These lamps are still made today, although they are once again smooth rather than textured, and the color is again on the outside. It is interesting to note that General Electric and the various Edison Electric distribution companies sponsored many neighborhood "decorating with color-light" contests in an effort to induce sales of the new outfits. Their strategy worked quite well, as within several years communities all over the United States held friendly decorating competitions at Christmastime.

• The bell shaped lights offered by General Electric in 1932 were actually first designed to be used in a model train station manufactured by the Lionel Company and burned with the base down. They were made to imitate the shape of streetlights of the day, and when it was discovered that they also resembled Christmas bells when painted in colors other than white or beige and hung upside down, GE started offering them as Christmas lights. They remained popular until the advent of World War II.

• The miniature lights that we are so familiar with today are wired in exactly the same way as our grandparent´s lights were -- in series! This means that if one goes out, they all should go out. What is different about today´s lights is the fact that each little bulb has a shunt device in it, which prevents the string from going dark due to the failure of one or more lamps. Of course, this shunt device can only work if the lamp stays in its socket.

NECA wishes you a bright holiday season and a happy, healthy, prosperous and safe new year!