A Brief History of Christmas Lights

Those of us who celebrate Christmas with a tree in our homes usually choose to light it in one way or another. But did you ever stop to wonder how we got started lighting our trees? The first lights on Christmas trees were candles that were attached to the tree branches with either melted wax or pins that held them in place. As you can imagine, many trees went up in flames due to this practice. One might guess that at that time, many families would have kept buckets of water nearby to extinguish the impending fire. In the homes of the wealthy, it was often times the job of a servant to watch the tree during the evening hours and be prepared to extinguish a fire, if necessary. As a result of this eminent risk, most trees were decorated on December 24th and promptly removed following Christmas day. This must have been a lot of work for such a short viewing of the tree! In 1882, the technology of Thomas Edison was used to hand wire 80 red, white, and blue lights onto the first electrically lighted Christmas tree. It took a few years for this idea to catch on. When President Grover Cleveland set up an electronically lighted Christmas tree in the White House in 1895, finally the idea began to get some publicity. The general public realized that there was a better way to light their Christmas trees. By the close of the 1800’s, General Electric Company began manufacturing and selling hand blown bulbs that were ready to wire into a string to be put on a Christmas tree. Since the average homeowner was not well educated about how electricity worked in those days, a new industry sprung up of “women” who were hired to wire the bulbs together to light the family tree.

In the early 1900’s, some big department stores began setting up large illuminated trees to attract customers. And attract customers it did! Everyone wanted to have a tree at home like the stores were capable of putting on display. In the early 1900’s, the cost of such a tree was in excess of $300. That price included a generator and the wireman’s service. By today’s standard, that cost would be equivalent to more than $2,000. In 1903, the American Eveready Company developed and marketed the first Christmas light set, which had screw in bulbs and a plug in wall socket, since many homes had been “wired” for electricity by this time. Then in 1908, entrepreneur Ralph Morris came up with the idea of taking the lights from an old telephone switchboard, wiring them on a Christmas tree, and running a battery as a power source. But the individual who made the biggest difference in electric Christmas tree lights, and who made them affordable to the general public, was Albert Sadacca. Albert’s family manufactured imitation birds in a wicker cage that lit up with electricity. At the age of 15, Albert had the idea of making electric Christmas lights. His parents thought it sounded like a good idea, and the family gave it a go.

The first year, they only sold 100 sets of lights. The following year, Albert decided to color bulbs in red, green, and other colors. This idea really took off. Albert Sadacca went on to become the head of a NOMA Electric Company, a multi-million dollar corporation. Headed up by Albert and his two brothers, Henri and Leon, the trio formed the largest Christmas lighting company in the world prior to 1965. Today, yet another revolution in Christmas lighting is occurring. The newest offering in holiday lights are LED lights that use significantly less electricity than incandescent bulbs and burn out less frequently. With the trend toward energy conservation and “going green”, LED lights are rapidly gaining in popularity. Though they are more expensive than traditional incandescent light sets, one way to change over all your holiday lights is to buy one new set of LED lights per year until everything is changed over. Christmas tree lighting technology will continue to change as time goes on. History shows us that we’ve made many improvements in the last few centuries. Only time will tell what’s in store for holiday lights in years to come!

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