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ELECTRIC
CHRISTMAS
LIGHTS
1900-1920

The Earliest Light Sets

 


 

All of the outfits presented in this category use variations of a screw-in connector like the one shown in the figure above on the left. Early homes were wired for ceiling or wall lighting only, and the only way to tap into the electric power circuit was through a light fixture's bulb socket. The wall outlet shown above right was a convenience rarely found, and even with the cover flap was somewhat dangerous-especially for those with children. It was salvaged from a circa 1905 mansion that was being demolished.

General Electric introduced the world's first prewired lighting outfits for the Christmas selling season of 1903. An example of the outfit is pictured below.

 

                     

Circa 1903-1904 General Electric Christmas lighting outfit, the first set offered for
sale to the public. Below is a GE supplied advertising postcard for this outfit from about 1905.

    

Here is a picture of the instructions for the General Electric outfit pictured above. For the sake of clarity, the instructions are transcribed here:

 



ELECTRIC DECORATIVE LIGHTING OUTFIT

DESCRIPTION

Beautiful illumination is a requisite of handsome decorations, and nothing is more effective for this purpose than miniature incandescent lamps. Such lamps have no flame to cause smoke, smell or soil, and are therefore perfectly safe. The enclosed outfit provides a simple and ready means of using miniature incandescent lamps wherever electric light is available for house and store decorations, and is especially suited for Christmas tree and Holiday lighting. This outfit is made up complete with all connections made so that it is ready for immediate use at any time by simply connecting it to the electric lighting circuit and draping it over the object to be decorated. An outfit of this kind once purchased may be used as frequently as desired and will last for years. It is safe, simple and convenient and avoids all the danger and trouble incident to the use of candles.

DIRECTIONS FOR USE

Each outfit consists of fifty feet of flexible cord with attaching plug and  sockets with all connections made and ready for use, and  miniature incandescent lamps in clear and colored bulbs.
After unpacking the outfit screw the lamps into all the sockets. There are extra lamps to provide against breakage.

At one end of the lamp conductor will be found a screw attaching plug. This should be screwed into the nearest lamp socket in the room. The lamps are strung in series of eight on these festoons on loops of cord radiating from a junction box. This junction plug can be fastened to the decoration in an inconspicuous place and the festoons of cord with lamps can then be draped about the decoration and entwined as desired.

The eight lamps in each festoon are connected in series with each other. Each one of these eight lamps must therefore be in the circuit (i.e., screwed home in its socket and making connections with the current) before any of them can burn. Each lamp must bottom in its socket.

IF THE LAMPS OF ANY ONE FESTOON FAIL TO BURN

Examine each lamp to see that the filament is not broken. Replace any that are from the spare lamps. See that each lamp is screwed home in its socket.

If none of the festoons light up, the attaching plug probably does not make contact in the regular lamp socket to which it has been connected, or the current may not be turned on at the socket or switch.

After lamps have been placed in all the sockets, should the lamps in any series or festoon fail to light after the directions given above have been observed, the trouble can be quickly located by interchanging the lamps, one by one, with those in a festoon or series in which the lamps are burning. The same procedure should be followed in case any one of the series is extinguished after the lamps are lighted. The lamps with this outfit should be used only on circuits the voltages of which are within the limits given on the front of the box.

Standard outfits are supplied with 8, 16, 24 and 32 lights. Additional festoons of 8 sockets each with lamps can be ordered for increasing size of outfit.

Additional lamps can be obtained on order (order should specify miniature lamps for Christmas tree outfit), giving the voltage of the lighting service at the house.

The outfit may be used for general house and table decorations at all seasons.

GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY, HARRISON, N.J., U.S.A.
(Edison Decorative and Miniature Lamp Dept.)

 

When the courts turned down a General Electric patent application for the lighting festoon itself, any company was free to manufacture and sell Christmas tree lighting strings. Many companies did just that. The early years of the twentieth century saw a large variety of electric Christmas lighting outfits hit the market, supplied by many manufacturers and/or resellers. Among the most prominent were of course General Electric, followed closely by The American Ever Ready company (after 1912, and the forerunner of the Eveready battery company that we know today), The Jaeger Miniature Lamp Manufacturing Company, the Yuletide Novelty Company, The Electric Porcelain Mfg. Company, Empire (a division of Westinghouse), The Triangle Electro Trading Company, Franco and The Excelsior Supply Company.

1907 advertisement promoting a
battery operated winking (blinking)
light set
from the Excelsior Supply Company

 

A B C D E F

 

A. This extremely rare Touch The Button outfit is circa 1904, and it is believed that the outfit was manufactured by Jaeger. The name "Touch The Button" is a reference to the early push button wall switches of the time. Jaeger is the same company that offered Santa Claus Electric Candles outfits in similar wood boxes. Apparently, there were two Jaeger brothers who each headed their own electrical company. It is probable that this Touch The Button outfit was sold by one of the companies, and the possibility also exists that it was manufactured by one of the Jaeger companies and then sold through a third party.

B. A view inside the box showing the restored covered lamp compartment. The outside of the box shows year around uses for the outfit, including decorating dining rooms for parties, store front windows and the like. The only mention of Christmas use is on the lid of the box. Remember, during the years the set was sold, it was prohibitively expensive for the average family, so companies tried to emphasize the fact that the set had many uses other than Yuletide decorating.

C. Inside the restored lamp compartment shows spaces for 25 lamps- 24 for the festoons and one spare. The lamps are American made and are of the outside painted carbon filament type, with porcelain insulators in the bases and the early "tin can" type center contact button at the bottom. 

D- Here are two of the three festoons in the set, along with the green glazed porcelain junction box and the screw-in type current tap. The cord is silk covered, and each festoon has eight porcelain sockets.

E- The third festoon in this set is currently being restored. One of the sockets had ancient black electrical tape around it, likely to protect little fingers from the socket which had apparently been dropped, as half of it is missing. While unfortunate, it does afford us the opportunity to see what the inside of the unit looks like. The brass shell is held in place with some type of tar or resin like material, which can plainly be seen between the wires in this photo. The tar/resin also acts as a stabilizer and insulator for the wires in the socket shell.

F- Luckily, the tar or resin in the sockets is so very old that it is crumbling, offering this collector a very rare opportunity to actually disassemble the sockets without damage. Shown here are a top and side view of the porcelain socket shell, as well as the brass socket insert itself. Almost all outfits of this vintage are impossible to disassemble like this, so it is a bit exciting to have the rare chance to bring this set back to like new condition. The outfit is missing two sockets, so the search is on for a pair of replacements to complete this final festoon.

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