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Who came up with the idea of electric Christmas tree lights?
Who came up with the idea of electric Christmas tree lights?
Who Invented Electric Christmas Tree Lights?
Who came up with the idea for electric lights on our Christmas trees, and how did the idea catch on? According to Popular Mechanics: "Shortly after the Illustrated London News ran a picture of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert gathered around a lit Christmas tree with their children, British society embraced the tradition. Strangely, in…
Who came up with the idea for electric lights on our Christmas trees, and how did the idea catch on?
According to Popular Mechanics:
“Shortly after the Illustrated London News ran a picture of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert gathered around a lit Christmas tree with their children, British society embraced the tradition. Strangely, in 1850 an altered depiction of the Royal Christmas ran in the influential Godey’s Lady’s Book—removing such details as the Queen’s tiara and Prince Albert’s mustache—where it gained popularity in the States as the first ‘influential American Christmas tree.'”
The Library of Congress, our national source of all kinds of knowledge for American history, tells the story of how the lights caught on in the United States:
“Thomas Edison, the inventor of the first successful practical light bulb, created the very first strand of electric lights. During the Christmas season of 1880, these strands were strung around the outside of his Menlo Park Laboratory. Railroad passengers traveling by the laboratory got their first look at an electrical light display. But it would take almost forty years for electric Christmas lights to become the tradition that we all know and love.
Before electric Christmas lights, families would use candles to light up their Christmas trees. This practice was often dangerous and led to many home fires. Edward H. Johnson put the very first string of electric Christmas tree lights together in 1882. Johnson, Edison’s friend and partner in the Edison’s Illumination Company, hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and wound them around his Christmas tree. Not only was the tree illuminated with electricity, it also revolved.
Edward Johnson’s tree
However, the world was not quite ready for electrical illumination. There was a great mistrust of electricity and it would take many more years for society to decorate its Christmas trees and homes with electric lights.
Some credit President Grover Cleveland with spurring the acceptance of indoor electric Christmas lights. In 1895, President Cleveland requested that the White House family Christmas tree be illuminated by hundreds of multi-colored electric light bulbs.
On Christmas Eve 1923, President Calvin Coolidge began the country’s celebration of Christmas by lighting the National Christmas Tree with 3,000 electric lights on the Ellipse located south of the While House.”
President Coolidge illuminating the Christmas tree on the White House lawn (Library of Congress pic)
Apparently, a Department of Commerce official, Frederick M. Feiker, came up with the idea hoping it would boost the growing electricity industry. Years later he recalled:
“The Society for Electrical Development was interested to have as many people use electric lights at Christmas time as possible, so I thought of this idea of having the National Christmas Tree at Washington, which would stimulate other people to have outdoor Christmas trees. In order to get this started, we had to get the President of the United States to light the tree. If you get the President of the United States two years in succession to do a thing, he will always do it.”
The plan was successful, and also started a custom for American presidents that has been observed every year except during World War II, and in 1979, when only the topper was illuminated in honor of American hostages in Iran.
U.S. National Christmas Tree in 1979
The Library of Congress also explains:
“Until 1903, when General Electric began to offer pre-assembled kits of Christmas lights, stringed lights were reserved for the wealthy and electrically savvy. The wiring of electric lights was very expensive and required the hiring of the services of a wireman, our modern-day electrician. According to some, to light an average Christmas tree with electric lights before 1903 would have cost $2000.00 in today’s dollars.”
Energy Efficient LED Christmas Lights
Mental Floss explains how Christmas tree lights made it to the living rooms of average Americans:
“Festoons (the afore-mentioned pre-assembled kits of Christmas lights from GE) 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.”
Popular Mechanics adds that the first outdoor light show was organized by Frederick Nash in Altadena, California, which “turned Santa Rosa Avenue into Christmas Tree Lane.” “Christmas Tree Lanes” are now common throughout the country.
And in areas where there aren’t traditional fir trees, celebrants make do with what is available.
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Christmas Lights: Here's How They Came to Be
The first Christmas tree to be adorned in lights revolved and had 80 hand-wired large red, white and blue electric bulbs in 1882.
The Christmas lights of today can light up trees and window frames with tiny twinkling lights of many colors—or cause frustration with their long and tangle-prone cables. But the first such lights, introduced to the holiday world in 1882 by Edward Johnson, a friend and partner of light-bulb inventor Thomas Edison, were a different story.
Johnson didn’t introduce the idea of using light to celebrate the holiday; the tradition of making the winter festive with the light and warmth of fire is much older than electricity. For many years, those who could afford to would express their Christmas spirit by lighting candles on trees.
“Generally, the tree was set up in the parlor and when all the family would come down to see the tree, dad or grandpa would light up all the candles,” John Hanssen, an collector of Christmas-related antiques, tells TIME. “You’d look at it for a few seconds and blow them out.”
Candles were lit to “signify the light of Jesus,” according to Hanssen, 46, who is a member of the Golden Glow of Christmas Past, an international organization for Christmas history. But all those candles had a serious downside, causing numerous fires.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz broke barriers on both sides of the camera
Edward Johnson’s idea was to replace the candles with a string of colored electric lights, which he did with eight bulky, pear-shaped bulbs on a single wire. Several publications covered his lighting of the first tree, which rotated as the red, white and blue lights dazzled spectators. But the idea didn’t catch on widely in the U.S., as many Americans didn’t entirely trust electricity and the bulbs were too expensive to be practical. Hanssen says that an early set of eight bulbs would have cost a buyer about a week’s wages or, he estimates, about $80 in today’s dollars.
That changed in the 1920s, at which point General Electric’s pre-assembled lights became more accessible and cheaper, cultural historian Kerri Dean explains.
President Grover Cleveland also helped make the lights popular after he used them to light a Christmas tree in the White House in 1895, according to Dean. The 29-year-old doctoral student from California delved into the history behind Christmas lights for her master’s thesis at Claremont Graduate University.
As for Hanssen, however, the interest in Christmas lights is less academic. The collector decks out his own Nebraska home with vintage lights and says it brings a smile to his face to see antique bulbs shining from modern homes.
“You can’t, in my opinion, compare the old lights to what they have today. The old lights are so much better,” he says. “The inventiveness, their beauty, their uniqueness cannot be compared. They are works of art compared to your generic box today.”
“For me, it brings back childhood memories,” he adds. “It goes back to the simpler times.”
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