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 the evergreen with lit candles. Candles symbolized the coming of the light or the Christ child, and they made the tree look oh-so-pretty. Indeed, the glow and flicker from those candles must have been dazzling… until one 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?) it wasn’t long before the blaze flared out of control. Mass panic ensued as personnel scrambled to evacuate patients. Most of the building burned to the ground. As the incident gets scant mention on the world wide web, I wasn’t able to learn of any deaths or serious injuries. So, 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.

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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 that he no doubt heard of or maybe experienced. Since the light bulb itself was still in its infancy, electric lights on a tree was definitely a novel concept. So much so that it 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.” 

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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, they were only available to the super wealthy. Because back then, giving a tree its electric flare was not so easy as running to Target and picking up a few strands of lights. Electric lights of any kind were still very new. 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 was a very intricate process. For the rest of the 1880s and into the 1890s, Christmas lights were so rare that most people didn’t even know they existed.

Word got out slowly but surely in the mid-1890s. President Grover Cleveland put a big stamp on the tree light map in 1895, when he wired up the White House tree with its first ever set of electric bulbs. The 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.”

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Is that not the cutest image? Sickly little children finding some joy in their first lit up Christmas tree? It was 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). While people were indeed enchanted with the lights, many were soured at how much it cost and how unavailable they were to the general populace. By then, General Electric had bought out Edison and his light-bulb factory. They 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 need to simplify the Christmas tree light fad and make it 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 that was still about a week’s worth of wages for the average household. So, despite the rapid advances on the Twinkly Light Front, they still were only available to certain crowds and neighborhoods. Their limited availability actually muddied the waters of their origin. That, and the fact that Ever-Ready nor GE had an official patent on the wiring process.

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For many years, a telephone employee named Ralph Morris thought he was the inventor of Christmas lights. His impromptu invention came about because? You guessed it. Another dangerous fire. This one almost took away his son. The toddler boy knocked over a candle on the tree and badly singed his hair. Morris decided he was done risking anyone’s safety, but he still wanted that tree lit up. 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. 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 to that effect in the Christian Science Monitor. Imagine their disappointment when they learned that their father’s dazzling display was gracing 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.

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As tree lights spread far and wide, more improvements came about to make them cheaper and safer, since faulty wiring jobs could still cause those dreaded tree fires. Batteries eventually came along and made some light strands both easier to use and much more affordable. Tungsten lighting further 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 is in direct contact with all of 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 that one dead bulb that has killed your entire display.

All lapses aside, leaps and bounds of improvements came in the Christmas light world. By the 1930s, lights for the tree were readily available to most families who wanted them. The 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-like attachment on top. This dropper was filled 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 they were first draped over some roof gutters in 1996, icicle lights turned into a nationwide craze. They sold out of every store that carried them and they raked in millions of dollars. Soon, it was hard to find a house without them. Although I still see plenty of them hanging around (Christmas puns!), the craziness has faded. They certainly aren’t considered all that unique anymore.

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Neither are electric Christmas lights as a whole. Once the most novel of novelty items, they are now plastered on every house, window, lamp post, and evergreen. 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 can get you a wire strand that is packed with hundreds of twinkly lights.

Light displays have 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.

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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, 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….

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SOURCES

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

Wikipedia

 

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! 

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107 Comments on “The Twinkly History of Christmas Lights

  1. How timely and how illuminating. What a glowing tribute. Keep on shining light on historical curiosities. I’ll keep on punning. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanza and very Happy Holidays!

  2. I still love those bubble lights, but no longer have light strings for them – they work great as night lights though!
    Hope your operation goes smoothly and your holidays are merry!

    • I’d love to try and get my hands on some! I might have to peek in some of the antique shops around here. No operation necessary – just some extra time with the brace and physical therapy. Thank goodness, because I’m terrified to go under the knife! Thanks for the well-wishes and have a very wonderful holiday season!

      • Thanks for the well wishes!
        They still sell bubble lights; I’ve seen them at Walmart, etc. but always can be found online. I’ve noticed that Vermont Country Store (though pricey) has 3 and 9 light candoliers.

      • Oooooh the Christmas miracles that online shopping provides. I’m going to start looking immediately! Thanks for the tip 🙂

  3. Absolutely fascinating, MB! After reading your wonderfully comprehensive post, no one will be “pine”-ing for more information on this subject. 🙂

  4. Great stuff. Knowing you to be a historian you might like the books, Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub about the WWI Christmas truce and Christmas in America, A History by Penne Restad.

    • I bet I would like those very much! That WWI Christmas Truce always pulls at my heart strings. I will have to track them down

      • A very good friend of mine was just telling me about that movie on Friday Night. Do you know if it’s on Netflix or anything like that? It’s French right?

      • Not sure if it’s on Netflix. Amazon prime I think. I have the DVD. I believe it’s in French. It’s a multinational production.

  5. I’m kind of fascinated by the idea of powering your lights by hooking them up through a chandelier. Really interesting post.

    • In one of my resource books listed (the Christmas Tree Book) they had a pretty cool diagram of how that worked! It was very interesting indeed. Glad you liked the post! 🙂

  6. Enlightening post, MB! Thanks for illuminating the history of Christmas lights. Mr. Morris rocks!

    Enjoy your holidays and best wishes on the wrist. I will be departing shortly for a new knee myself. See you sometime in 2020.

    • Thanks so much! 🙂 I’m very glad you enjoyed it. A very happy holidays to you!

  7. Who knew?! A real tour-de-force, thank you for the detail, I knew only a little of this, such a fascinating history.

  8. Morris get recognition, no matter his invention was selling before – he did it with different material and much cheaper, right? So, yes, his invention.

    • Unfortunately the search was still on for us this year! Our office tree was pre-wired and one went out so sure enough the whole thing did too! My poor husband had to search every bulb for the guilty party. No more pre-wired trees for us hahaha.

  9. Thank you for telling the interesting history of twinkly Christmas tree lights. I enjoyed all the photos! You’ve made me want to get out to enjoy the light displays around where I live!

    • 🙂 Yay! I love inspiring other people. Happy light hunting, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you for your wonderful compliments too

  10. An entertaining and informative post! Thanks for sharing the history of Christmas lights! I love your tongue in cheek tone, as well! We live outside a small city on the eastern edge of the mighty Mississippi River. Our Riverside Park Display is well known for it’s light display. It is in it’s 25th year and run by the Rotary Club. They are up to 3 million lights and add more every year. One of my favorite Christmas scenes are views of the park all lit up from above or from across the river in Minnesota. Have a wonderful holiday season! I will look forward to more of your wonderful posts!

    • Hahaha yes I have been told I can be quite cheeky! 🙂 So glad you enjoyed it. That light display sounds absolutely incredible! I always love hearing about and seeing the light displays in other places. Have a great holiday season and I will love having you along for the ride next year!

  11. This is an amazing and interesting story. The photos are gorgeous! When I was a child our family friend Bessie Snyder had bubble lights. I sat watching them constantly! Thank you for a marvelous story of the Christmas lights. Soon, we celebrate the might returning and the birth of a king!

    • How cool! I wouldn’t mind seeing some bubble lights in person. While researching this article I did find that they might be experiencing a bit of a revival – people are scouring antique shops for them.

  12. A fascinating history of Christmas lights, MB, and your images are terrific. I grew up near Edison’s Lab in NJ and remember class trips there- it was a mysterious place. 🙂 Wishing you a wonderful holiday season!

    • I must confess I’m quite envious. I’d love to take a peek inside that lab! 🙂 Thanks for sharing that, how cool. So glad you enjoyed the post, and a very happy holidays to you!

  13. Wow! What a fantastic read. So much there I didn’t know! Bookmarking it for my wife to read. She may want to reference it in her classroom. Great job.

    • So glad you enjoyed it, and I hope your wife does too! 🙂 I love passing all the fun holiday info along

  14. I grew up with real candles on our Christmas trees in Germany, and no electric light comes close in creating the same kind of magic. We never had any problems with fires, but then we never left the candles unattended, and the tree didn’t go up until December 24, and it came down on January 6, so it didn’t dry out completely. I miss the candles! 🎄

    • You know, I would actually love to see what it looks like when a tree is lit with candles. I’ve never seen it. I bet it’s absolutely beautiful. I don’t dare try it myself though. I’m a bit clumsy and I don’t trust myself with that many open flames around 🙁

      • The atmosphere is absolutely magical, M.B. I would only do it with a fresh tree, with boughs that have plenty of room between them, and never leave the candles unattended. As an extra precaution, we had a bucket of water nearby. Luckily, we never had to use it. 🕯

      • Sounds like you are very savvy with candle safety! So glad you never had to use that bucket. And I bet it is indeed very magical 🙂

      • A great history! I have some history with bubble lights, from getting a strand with 9 (I think) lights as hand me downs in the early 70s. I think the fad was mostly dead by the mid 60s because they were the old series-wired sets that used the C6 bulb base. This was a slightly smaller base than the C7 bulbs used in the parallel wired sets of the 50s-60s, bulbs that serve in night-lights in kids rooms everywhere even today.

        Mine finally mostly burned out by the early 80s and by then I was rethinking the wisdom of 50 year old wiring in a Christmas tree.

        The C6 bulbs have been out of production for decades and were hard to find even by the 80s, so any original bubble lights you find in an antique store will be a real project to take on given the series-type wiring and the unobtanium spare bulbs. The modem ones use C7 sockets and are much easier to live with, even if they lack the retro elegance of the old ones.

        Best wishes on your recovery!

      • Ooooh that is very good information to have! Thank you so much for sharing so I don’t wind up with something I have no idea how to wire! 😃 I might definitely have to spring for the modern version and just imagine the rest 😃

  15. I especially love the story of the Morris family and Christmas MacGyver. I’d never heard that before. I’m also wondering, while the Christmas tree lights eventually caught on, why didn’t the rotating trees? Although I suppose I’m grateful. Where would we put the ugly ornaments with sentimental value if there were no backside in which to hide them?

    • I feel like rotating trees kind of used to be more of a thing than they are now. I swear I remember some people having them when I was a kid. They were always very little trees but still! And yes – that’s a good point about those ugly sentimental ornaments! Lol.

    • Me too! Especially the blue ones. They’re very pretty. Merry Christmas to you as well! <3 Thanks for the well-wishes on the wrist

  16. You have such a wonderful flare for bringing history to life, and I enjoy how you breathe life into parts of culture or geographical spots about which we might not otherwise consider, M.B. In retrospect, it seems so awful that anyone would put burning open candles on their Christmas tree, but I get it. Hurray for lights!

  17. Fun post… I’m a product of the 50’s bubble lights that covered our tree.. a childhood memory of magic that still bubbles up periodically. The real magic was that the tree was not in place until Christmas morning. Santa left the gifts and the tree!

    • How cool! Another commentor was saying that you can get bubble lights on the internet now. I might try and get a set for next year, because I’ve never actually seen them in action. And that’s very cute about the tree on Christmas morning, I know that’s how a lot of people used to do it. So glad you enjoyed the post!

  18. This is all news to me. I’ve seen images of candles on Christmas trees, even current ones, and can’t figure out how EVERYONE’s trees didn’t burn up. No matter how you position them, it seems like they’d eventually catch a twig on fire. So grateful for lights now. That’s so much a part of the magic of Christmas. Earlier today, hundreds of folks on an Austin forum were upset about the fact that the mayor doesn’t put lights along Congress Avenue anymore. Bah humbug! We need the lights. Plus, it makes our yard look aMAZing each night. 🙂

    • Awwww why no lights anymore?! I totally agree – lights are one of my favorite things about the Christmas season! 🙂 They make everything look so magical. And people who use candles are braver than me – but it must look really awesome! 🙂

  19. Another fascinating post. I learn so much from you, and posts like this help me feel like a real smarty pants.

    I never wondered about the beginnings of electric tree lights and how the industry developed. But you’ve given me a greater appreciation of holiday lights. 🙂

    • That makes me so happy to hear! I always enjoy passing the info along and I love when people enjoy it. A very Merry Christmas to you friend filled with your favorite Christmas movies ❤

  20. It’s so appropriate that I should finally have found this wonderful post today. My recent move is complete, the tree is up, and I put the lights on it last night. After many years of putting it away with the lights intact, I had to string up new ones — the movers took care of the ones that were on it. But that’s all right. If these last the same fifteen years that the last strings did, they might outlast me!

    Believe it or not, I’m one of those who remembers lighted candles on a tree. My grandparents, who came from Sweden, always had lighted candles on Christmas eve — with the bucket of water close at hand. But after I came along, and began toddling, they made the decision to forgo that particular tradition, and stick with the cookie baking for their dose of tradition. I still have the memory of those candles reflecting in the frost-covered windows, though.

    As for bubble lights, they’re still around, and, in fact, you can even get bubble-light nightlights! An online search will turn up plenty of sellers, although I bought some from Vermont Country Store for gifts. The quality does vary, but it’s pretty easy to spot the good ones from the photos and reviews. Merry Christmas — and a quick, complete healing for that wrist!

    • Another person here mentioned that bubble lights are available online, and I’ve decided to try and get some for next year 😃 I’m happy you are settled with your recent move and have new lights for a new place – Here’s to another 15 with them! Thanks so much for sharing your stories and I’m so glad you liked the post. A Merry Christmas to you!

  21. Fascinating, as always. What a lovely photo of you and your honey! When Teddy and I were children, our local town was Rutherglen just outside Glasgow. There was always an enormous fir tree but the lights were just regular bulbs in different colors. We still refer to ‘Rutherglen’ lights when we see a simple lighting display. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. Merry Christmas!

    • How nice about Glasgow 😃 there is something very lovely and nostalgic about the simple colored bulbs. That pic of us was taken at LA Zoo Lights – the zoo decks the whole place out in lights for the holidays. It was pretty spectacular! So glad you liked the post and I hope you have a wonderful Christmas!

  22. I never knew Christmas tree lights had such a history. You really dug up some gems here. And these pictures are so pretty. Great job and thank you for sharing!

  23. What a handsome couple! Hope 2020 brings you health and happiness 🙂

    Appreciate the history, I go one better .. my Christmas lights are solar powered 😎

    • You as well – and way to go on the solar power! That’s really cool I didn’t even realize there was such a thing!

      • yep solar lights only, works super well … can have a solar shower, what we had to use when I caved … you can get most things solar and we certainly have the climate for it here 🙂
        I lived off grid, so solar power only!

      • I’d love to use more solar power – someday when we move into a house! Unfortunately in an apartment we don’t have much say in that sort of thing, but all the lights in our unit are LED at least

  24. December was a crazy busy month for us so somehow I missed this along the way. Interesting post and I learned something as well. Hope you have a wonderful 2020, MB. 😊

    • Why thank you! I can certainly say that 2020 is off to a good start. I totally get the crazy of December, I hope it was a good holiday!

      • Yes, it was wonderful. Our first grandbaby was born a couple weeks earlier than expected which brought everything to a screeching halt for the rest of the month. 😁

      • Congrats!!! I hope baby and mamma are doing well! <3

      • Yes, they are both doing well. My granddaughter is already showing quite a personality and she is only 1 month old. 😁

      • So cute! Isn’t it amazing how fast they develop?! Congrats to you and the family

  25. What an interesting story! Tree lights are very special. Mine changed back and forth from white to color. Really nice. Great photo of you two!

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