A Brief History of Christmas Tree Lights

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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.

December 9, 2010 - 10:44am
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