A Brief History of Christmas Tree Lights

Like Bert and Ernie or pork and fennel, Christmas trees and lights were made for each other. But how did stringing up a few hundred twinkling lights on a pine tree become a normal part of Christmas merrymaking?

Make Like a Tree and Get in the House

Well, it all started with the pagans. The ritual use of evergreens and lights during winter celebrations predates Christianity. Their symbolism (life in the dead of winter) must not have been lost on Christians, who adopted the pagan Yule log and began bringing evergreen trees into their homes during the winter. In the 17th century, the Germans combined the two elements and the tradition of illuminating the Christmas tree with candles began (legend has it that Martin Luther, inspired by a starry Christmas Eve sky, lit the first tree a century earlier, but the first documented references to a lit tree come from 1660).

The Christmas tree came to the United States in the early 19th century with the German-speaking Moravians (who often practiced the "putzing" or "dressing up" of the tree with decorative ornaments), who settled in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. One of the earliest documented references to a Christmas tree in America comes from a 1821 journal entry by Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who saw his friends "on the hill at Kendrick's saw mill" looking for a good tree to put in the living room.

Christmas trees quickly spread from German enclaves and became an established part of American Christmas celebrations.

In 1832, Harvard University professor Charles Follen, inspired by German tradition, may have been the first American to illuminate a Christmas tree when he decorated his with candles. In 1851, Mark Carr opened the first Christmas tree retail operation, cutting down trees in the Catskill Mountains and selling them at New York City's Washington Market. In 1856, the illuminated Christmas tree hit the big time when President Franklin Pierce had the White House tree decorated with candles.

The candle-lit Christmas tree, to no one's surprise, had some problems. For one, it was hard to keep the candles attached to the branches. People tried pinning the candle down with a needle, tying the candle to the branch with wire or string, and using melted wax as an adhesive. None of these methods worked very well. Fortunately, a breakthrough came in the form of Frederick Artz's 1878 invention: a clip-on candleholder. But even if you got the candles to stay, there was the little manner of having a very large, vary flammable tree in your living room. People usually kept the candles lit for no longer than 30 minutes at a time, kept an eye on the tree the whole time, and always had a bucket of sand or water at the ready in case of fire. Of course, accidents still happened. Eventually, a group of insurance companies collectively refused to pay for fires started by Christmas trees and began putting a "knowing risks" clause in their policies.

The Christmas Tree, Like Bob Dylan, Goes Electric

1st-xmas-treeOn December 22, 1882, Edward Johnson—a friend of Thomas Edison and vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company—displayed the first electrically illuminated Christmas tree in the parlor of his New York City home (pictured). The tree, powered by an Edison generator (Johnson lived in the first section of the city to be wired for electricity), featured eighty hand-wired red, white and blue light bulbs—which, according to a reporter from the Detroit Post and Tribune, were each as "large as an English walnut"—and sat on a motorized box that rotated it "some six times a minute."Â  Over the next few years, Johnson and Edison experimented with and improved upon Johnson's electric tree lights. In 1890, they took them to the market place, publishing a 28-page brochure about "Edison miniature lamps for Christmas trees" and placing ads for the product in popular magazines.

Electric tree lights, like the illuminated tree before them, got national attention when they made their debut at the White House on Grover Cleveland's 1895 Christmas tree. Most people who weren't the President of the United States would have to wait for their own electric tree lights, however. Public distribution of electricity was spotty, and most people living outside major cities would have had to supply their own electric power from a household generator. Lighting an average-sized tree would have also been prohibitively expensive for most people. The generator, the fee for the wireman who would need to hand-wire all the lights on the tree, and the wire and lights themselves would usually cost upwards of $300.

A Chicken in Every Pot and an Electric Christmas Tree in Every Living Room

In 1903, a breakthrough in electric lighting technology came when GE offered the first pre-wired string of tree lights to the public. The string of lights, called a "festoon," consisted of a string of eight pre-wired porcelain sockets, eight Edison miniature colored glass lamps, and a screw-in plug for a wall socket (the length of wire all this was attached to was not made by GE, but the American Eveready Company, which would go on to become part of the National Carbon Company and give the world the long-lasting alkaline battery).

Festoons were still pretty expensive at $12 per string (slightly less than an average week's wages for many people), but that problem would be solved when GE attempted to patent their Christmas lighting festoon. The patent application was refused, because the product was based on knowledge that an ordinary wireman possessed. With the market wide open, other companies and inventors began to produce their own tree light sets and the American Christmas light industry was born.

One early Christmas light entrepreneur was teenager Albert Sadacca, who convinced his parents to use the material from their novelty lighting business to produce affordable tree light sets. He later started a trade organization called the National Outfit Manufacturers Association (NOMA). NOMA eventually became the NOMA Electric Co. and dominated the Christmas light market until the 1960s, when competition from foreign imports drove them into bankruptcy and out of the lighting business.

This article originally appeared last December.

A Letter Written by Albert Einstein in 1922 Predicted the Rise of the Nazis

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As a Jew living in Germany in the 1920s, Albert Einstein had an up-close view of the Nazis’ rise to power. As early as 1922, he could see turbulent political times ahead, as a letter to his sister reveals. The handwritten, signed letter recently sold at auction for $39,360, Live Science reports.

The letter, offered by the Jerusalem-based Kedem Auction House, is addressed to Einstein’s younger sister Maja. Einstein wrote it from an undisclosed location—probably Kiel, Germany, according to the auction house—after he fled Berlin in 1922 in the wake of the assassination of Germany’s Jewish foreign minister, Walther Rathenau, by a right-wing terrorist group. Police had warned Einstein that as a prominent Jew his life could be in danger, too. “Nobody knows where I am, and I'm believed to be missing,” he writes in the letter.

He remained upbeat while at the same time acknowledging the seriousness of the political situation that he and other German Jews were facing. “I am doing quite well, in spite of all the anti-Semites among my German colleagues,” he assured Maja. "Here are brewing economically and politically dark times, so I'm happy to be able to get away from everything for half a year,” he wrote, alluding to his upcoming six-month trip to Asia, during which he would learn that he had won the Nobel Prize. He was right—Adolf Hitler's failed coup in Bavaria would take place the next year, in November 1923.

Einstein goes on to say “Don't worry about me, I myself don't worry either, even if it's not quite kosher; people are very upset. In Italy, it seems to be at least as bad, by the way."

After his Asian tour, he returned to Germany before setting out on new travels, including a tour of the United States. He was in the U.S. when Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor, and decided to renounce his German citizenship. He eventually settled in Princeton, New Jersey.

See the full details of the letter at the Kedem Auction House’s website.

[h/t Live Science]

No Joe: The Time Coffee Was Banned in Prussia

iStock.com/NickS
iStock.com/NickS

In the late 18th century, Prussia's King Frederick the Great (officially Frederick II) blacklisted coffee and encouraged his royal subjects to drink something far more wholesome—beer. According to William Harrison Ukers's classic 1922 book All About Coffee, Frederick issued this decree on September 13, 1777:

"It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. Everybody is using coffee. If possible, this must be prevented. My people must drink beer. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were his ancestors, and his officers. Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer; and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be depended upon to endure hardship or to beat his enemies in case of the occurrence of another war."

Though the authenticity of the above quotation cannot be confirmed, it certainly jibes with King Freddie's other opinions on the matter, according to Robert Liberles, a scholar of German-Jewish history. In a 1779 letter, Frederick wrote, "It is despicable to see how extensive the consumption of coffee is … if this is limited a bit, people will have to get used to beer again … His Royal Majesty was raised eating beer-soup, so these people can also be brought up nurtured with beer-soup. This is much healthier than coffee."

So Old Fritz, as he was called, loved beer. But why was he so opposed to coffee?

For one, Frederick was terrified that excessive imports could ruin his kingdom's economy, and he much preferred to restrict commerce than engage in trade. Since coffee, unlike beer, was brought in from across the border, Frederick regularly griped that "at least 700,000 thaler leave the country annually just for coffee"—money, he believed, that could be funneled into well-taxed Prussian businesses instead.

In other words, into Fritz's own pockets.

To redirect the people's spending patterns, Frederick ordered a number of steep restrictions, demanding that coffee roasters obtain a license from the government. This sounds like a reasonable regulation until you learn that Frederick summarily rejected nearly all of the applications, granting exceptions only to people who were already cozy with his court.

If that sounds elitist, it was. Frederick was adamant about keeping coffee out of the hands and mouths of poor people, writing, "this foreign product [has] extended into the lowest classes of human society and caused great contraband activities." To stop them, he hired approximately 400 disabled soldiers to work as coffee spies, or "sniffers," to roam city streets "following the smell of roasting coffee whenever detected, in order to seek out those who might be found without roasting permits," Ukers writes.

But none of these tactics worked. Rather, they just increased coffee smuggling and exacerbated the "contraband activities" that Frederick claimed he was trying to prevent in the first place. So shortly after the king died in 1786, many of these restrictions were lifted, proving yet again that it's always a mistake to get between someone and their java.

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