Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Christmas Countdown Day 19

Christmas Countdown Day 19
Lighting Up the Christmas Tree

Christmas trees were originally lit by small candles or tapers fastened to the tree. Because of the obvious fire risk, these candles would only be lit for a short time. However, there were many house fires caused by Christmas candles.

The incandescent electric light bulb was invented by Sir Joseph Swan in 1878, and patented in 1880. He used his bulbs to light the Savoy Theatre in London in 1881, which was the first building in the world to be entirely lit by electric light. 

Behold! The first ever electrically lit Christmas tree!  

The first known electrically lit Christmas tree was the creation of Edward H Johnson, vice-president of Edison's Electric Light Company. Edison was keen on publicity stunts and so in 1882 Johnson had some small electric lights produced. There were 80 lights in all, coloured red, white and blue, and h hung them on the tree at his home in New York City. The press seems to have largely ignored this stunt, except for a paper in Detroit, which did publish the story. I've read that the New York Times did eventually publish the story in 1884!!

Early Edison Christmas tree lights. Don't they look nice and safe!!!!
Subtle advertising for the benefits os electric lights!

Another early set of Christmas lights Circa 1903
Edison's company began producing Christmas lights commercially in the 1890's, though they were rather complicated as they each had to be hand-wired by a qualified electrician and proved rather an expensive novelty. However, in 1895 the first electrically lit Christmas tree appeared at the White House in Washington DC. 

In the early 20th century department stores in the USA began to use electric lights in their displays to attract customers to their stores. As Christmas tree lights became less expensive (and SAFER!) over time, their popularity grew.

Various sets of lights from the mid 20th century
In 1917 a 15 year old boy was so moved by a tragic fire caused by Christmas tree candles at a house in New York, that he encouraged his parents, owners of a business that produced illuminated novelties, to make some electric lights to hang on the tree to replace the candles. His parents liked the idea and some strings of lights were produced, with clear lamps. They didn't sell particularly well, but Albert Sadacca, the teenager in question, wasn't deterred, the following year he sold the lights again, but with coloured bulbs, and that was the beginnings of the NOMA Electric Company, which by the mid 20th century was the largest producer of Christmas tree lights in the world.

I remember well the string of coloured Pifco fairy lights (not the same as the ones above, ours were like coloured crystal stars) that we used to unpack every year as children for our own little Christmas tree, they lasted for years, though needed new bulbs over time. My mother probably still has them tucked away in her loft somewhere!

This is a cover from the same magazine as the one at the top of this post, but from 1949, notice anything different on the tree!!?


  1. Andy, this is fascinating! I LOVE Christmas Tree Lights... and I remember the first year my parents bought the "tiny" kind as opposed to the large old fashioned bulbs! But I must tell you that for many years I would light real candles on my Christmas Tree .... just for a short while on Christmas Eve... and we would sing Christmas carols while we watched the tree! There is Nothing more magical than real candle-light .... in spite of the hazards... if you do it right it is no more dangerous than Birthday candles on the cake! But I am also in Love with the electric lights.... and I have two trees every year so that one can have colored lights and one can have white lights... because I can never decide which I prefer!!! LOL! I Just LOVE the Lights!!!

  2. I loved this one, Andy. thanks for all the research and info.
    I hope your Christmas plans are going to plan!
    best wishes

  3. Hello Andy,
    I've lost count of how many things I've learned reading your blog. Thank you once again for the information. Not only is it great for miniature period projects, but it's just fascinating to know where things come from and how they became part of our every day life!
    Big hug,
    N.B. Your Christmas decorations are amazing!

  4. I remember Pifco lights too and I'm very curious to know why "Some Cops have lovely legs"! I guess we'll never know - lol!

  5. Andy, when I was young we had at home real candles in our Christams tree! My father lit the candles and had a huge bucket with water (as if that would help in case of a fire I doubt ;)) and a tall blanket standby in case of.... It was a very soft light and I will always remember me that we dare not move and sang Christmas songs :D! I Love reading all your posts about Christmas, thank you!
    I wish your family and you a Merry Christmas and a good and healthy 2013!
    Hugs, Ilona

  6. Oh my favourite!!!

    Christmas lights are the be all and end all for me. We definitely had the reliance coloured lights and I swear it was the exact same box. Just recently I wondered why some one hasn't made a modern retro version of the lights. I suppose they have but I haven't com across them.

    It does bring back memories of my childhood Christmases. Thank you Andy for yet another wonderful post.

    ML Fi Xx