The Twinkly History of Christmas Lights
Once upon a Holiday season in 1885, some generous folks put up a Christmas tree in a Chicago hospital. As everyone did back then, they illuminated it with lit candles, for the coming of the light or the Christ child, and to make the tree look oh-so-pretty. It must have been dazzling… until a candle fell off the tree and landed on the floor. Since evergreen is quite catchy when it comes to fire (you’ve all seen that Christmas tree fire video right?) the blaze quickly flared out of control. Mass panic ensued as personnel scrambled to evacuate patients, and the building burned to the ground. As the incident gets scant mention on the world wide web, I couldn’t learn of any deaths or serious injuries. Hopefully a Christmas miracle prevented any, but that wasn’t the case with many a Christmas fire back in the day. Fires from Christmas tree candles claimed a lot of unwitting victims and caused serious burns – especially for children.
Perhaps that’s why Edward H. Johnson, vice-president at the electric company of some obscure fellow named Thomas Edison, decided to put electric lights on his tree in 1882. Before the above-mentioned fire yes, but after countless others he no doubt heard of or maybe experienced. Since the light bulb was still in its infancy, electric lights on a tree was definitely a novel concept. So much so that Johnson’s tree made the news. A reporter named Croffut for the Detroit Post and Tribune witnessed the shiny spectacle of the world’s first electrically-lit tree.
He wrote: “There… 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 80 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 rest was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white, blue, white, red, blue – all evening… one can hardly imagine anything prettier.”
When he plugged in that tree, Mr. Johnson, and his counterpart Thomas Edison, sparked a craze. Christmas lights, in all of their twinkly delightfulness, were born. However, for many years, only the super wealthy could attain them. Back then, electric flare for a tree was not so easy as running to Target and picking up a few strands of lights. Only the most elite neighborhoods could afford the juice from Edison’s company. If a person had access to electricity via Edison or a very expensive generator, they had to find someone with the wiring know-how to illuminate their trees. And since each bulb had to be wired in individually, it would be a very intricate process. For the rest of the 1880s and into the 1890s, Christmas lights remained so rare that most people didn’t even know they existed.
Word got out slowly but surely in the mid-1890s, and in 1895, President Grover Cleveland wired up the White House tree with its first ever set of electric bulbs. Tree lights also popped on in the children’s ward of an NYC hospital, thanks to a wealthy and charitable citizen who wanted to give sick children a smile. A reporter for the New York Times captured the moment:
“The children’s ward of the New York Hospital was aglow last night with hundreds of lights that shone on a big Christmas tree in the middle of the room. Around it were gathered all the children of the ward, some propped up with pillows and others running about on the floor, all clad in warm red jackets and all alike beaming with pleasure… The tree itself was a sight to see. It was so arranged as to revolve slowly, and as it moved, electric lights shone from each of its boughs. The children, many of whom had never seen anything half so fine, shouted with delight.”
It must have been a precious sight, but it was still painfully rare. It could cost over $300 to make a single tree glimmer (the equivalent of a couple thousand dollars today). So while the lights enchanted many, the soured many more with their unreachable cost and unavailability to the general populace.
As the twentieth century dawned, General Electric tried to make tree lights simpler by distributing pamphlets on how to wire them at home – usually by using another electrical fixture (like a chandelier) as a power source. They also sold the bulbs at a lower price. A nice try, but it still didn’t make tree lights available to the average family. It also still required a high-level knowledge of electricity, even with the handy DIY pamphlets from GE.
That’s when a company named Ever-Ready entered the picture. Housed in New York, they saw the promise in making the tree light fad available to more patrons. In 1903, they manufactured the very first light strands. One simply had to plug them in and wind them around the tree. No more wiring individual bulbs. Each strand came with twenty-eight sockets and corresponding GE bulbs. In 1907, Ever-Ready also created strands with an open socket, so customers could keep adding to their light displays. To top it off, the whole outfit only cost twelve dollars. Semi-affordable, but still about a week’s worth of wages for the average household. So, despite the rapid advances on the Twinkly Light Front, only certain crowds and neighborhoods had them.
As it turns out, the continued limited availability of tree lights soon muddied the waters of their origin. That, and the fact that Ever-Ready nor GE had an official patent on the wiring process.
For many years, a telephone employee named Ralph Morris thought he had invented Christmas lights. His impromptu invention came about because? You guessed it. Another dangerous fire, one that almost claimed his son. The toddler boy knocked over a tree candle and badly singed his hair. Morris decided he wouldn’t risk his family’s safety any longer, but he still wanted that tree lit up. So, he slapped together a lighted display using some of the clear bulbs from a telephone switch board. He strung them together with phone wire and wrapped crepe paper around each bulb for color.
Later that night, he gathered his family around the tree, flipped a switch, and basked in the glowing of both the lights and his children’s eyes. For years afterward, Morris’s entire family thought their father had created Christmas lights. They even wrote a magazine article about it in the Christian Science Monitor. Imagine their disappointment when they learned that their father’s dazzling display had graced trees twenty-five years before. But if you ask me, Mr. Morris still deserves some mad props. Not only did he accomplish a simple solution to a novel problem, but he did it in complete MacGyver style, which I always appreciate.
As tree lights spread far and wide, more improvements came to make them cheaper and safer, since faulty wiring jobs could still cause those dreaded tree fires. Batteries came along and made some light strands both easier to use and much more affordable. Tungsten lighting also improved the quality of Christmas lights. The Tachon Connector came in 1923, a much safer junction box that did away with the porcelain connectors for multiple strands of lights. It also provided a cover for those pesky open sockets.
Then came another big change in 1927. General Electric, hungry to keep their edge in electricity, came up with the system of parallel wiring for electric lights (not just for trees). I’m not an electrician, but the reading I tried to untangle says that parallel wiring is when each bulb on a certain wire has direct contact with that wire’s volts. This keeps ruptures in the electrical current to a minimum. GE wanted to apply this system to Christmas lights, in an attempt to solve the age-old problem of “if one goes out, the whole thing goes out.” While parallel wiring spawned the creation of much smaller and safer wires, as well as smaller bulbs that could handle the higher voltage without burning so hot, it didn’t completely solve the problem. As anyone who has seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation knows, it can be a real pain in the neck trying to find the one dead bulb that has killed your entire display.
All lapses aside, leaps and bounds still came in the Christmas light world. By the 1930s, tree lights were readily available and affordable to most families who wanted them. Shapes of the bulbs had also evolved into spheres, cones, and even fruits and animals. Disney dove into the fray in 1936 and released light strands of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Snow White.
Next came the bubble light craze of the 1950s – a glowing, spherical tree light with a dropper attachment on top. Makers filled the dropper with methylene chloride – a chemical liquid that boiled at a low temperature. This created a mini-lava-lamp like effect that took the country by storm. By the 1960s, absolutely everyone had bubble lights. Their popularity became their downfall, as people got sick of them and they faded from the spotlight.
The same thing happened with icicle lights in the 1990s. When their inventors first draped them over some roof gutters in 1996, icicle lights turned into a nationwide craze. They sold out of every store and they raked in millions of dollars. Soon, you couldn’t spot a house without them. Although I still see plenty of icicle lights hanging around (Christmas puns!), the craziness has faded. They certainly aren’t considered all that unique anymore.
Neither are electric Christmas lights as a whole. Once the most novel of novelty items, twinkly lights are now plastered on every house, window, lamp post, and evergreen at Christmas time. You can get Christmas trees that are pre-wired with lights. You can also get laser projectors that splash your house with dazzling light shows. If you want to do it “the old-fashioned way,” a few dollars buys you a wire strand packed with hundreds of lights.
Light displays have especially exploded in recent decades. Clark Griswold’s house almost looks simple in comparison to the elaborate set-ups I have seen. Along the canals in Long Beach, where my husband and I enjoy walking at Christmas time, each house uses thousands of lights for their wild displays. They last a lot longer and eat less power too, thanks to the new LED lights.
In the end, the whole thing makes me a bit patriotic. Because many of our modern-day Christmas traditions evolved from other countries and religions. Electric lights are a rare American addition to all the holiday jingle. We’ve come a long way since that very first display too, and today’s ease can sometimes make us forget how hard it once was. How even the simplest things took a lot of brain juice, elbow grease, and deadly fires to create and perfect. But through all the high-tech wizardry and twinkly fun, there’s still one problem that no one has been able to solve. So, excuse me while I dig for that one damn light bulb that put out my entire Christmas tree….
The Christmas Tree Book – P.V. Snyder
Inventing the Christmas Tree – B. Brunner
“Untangling the History of Christmas Lights” – Smithsonian
“Here’s how Christmas Lights Came to Be” – Time Magazine
There’s plenty more historical holiday cheer to be had! For the history of the famous Shiny Brite Tree Ornaments, click here.
To learn how apples came to be a popular tree ornament – click here.
All photos by M.B. Henry – taken at the Long Beach Canals and at LA Zoo Lights in Los Angeles
This will be my last article of 2019! I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday season. Posts and visits to your wonderful blogs will resume in 2020, when I will hopefully have a fully functional wrist!