LIGHTING OUTFITS: 1900-1920
Home electric lighting of Christmas trees was not truly practical until 1903, when General Electric first offered pre-wired lighting outfits, complete with miniature Edison lamps, for sale to the general public. GE packaged their light bulbs with a festoon made by the American Ever Ready company in an attractive wooden box, complete with decorating instructions. Prior to that, consumers had to hand wire socket-less light bulbs onto the tree themselves, a tedious task at best. Here is a picture of one of the earliest Christmas light bulbs known:
In the early 1900s, electricity was still a bit of a novelty, and the sight of a glowing electric tree was a wondrous one indeed. But the cost was quite prohibitive, and the general population was more than content to stay with their time honored candles for holiday cheer. Those who were not wealthy and still wanted the novelty of an electric tree were sometimes able to rent an outfit from the local department store. Below is a set designed solely for rental purposes. It is packed in a very sturdy oak box, and is nicely finished so as to attract attention when placed in a store window. This outfit contains eight lamps plus a spare, and was suitable for a table top tree:
As the idea of electric tree lighting slowly became more accepted by a skeptical public, other companies began offering complete lighting sets as well. The American Ever Ready Company immediately tried to patent their festoon sets, but were unable to as the courts decided that the design and concept was based on ordinary electrical skills and was therefore not patentable. Soon many small companies were offering lighting sets of their own. Please refer to the Manufacturer's Histories section of this site for further details about many of the early manufacturers of electric Christmas lighting.
All of the outfits presented in this category use 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. 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 in Knoxville, Tennessee).
A- This outfit is the earliest in my collection, and is quite rare. Circa 1907, it was sold by General Electric, using their lamps and a festoon made by The American Ever Ready company.. Normal outfits of this era use 15 volt lamps and are series wired, meaning that if one lamp goes out, they all go out. This set is parallel wired, so the failure of a single lamp will not affect the operation of the others. Using candelabra based 110 volt lamps, the light string employs white porcelain sockets and copper wire with a green silk braided covering. The power connector is a typical screw-in plug.
B- Here is a close-up picture of the lamp compartment. Two spare lamps are included with the outfit, and all of the bulbs are protected in the divided area with a hinged lid. The lid has detailed instructions for proper operation.
C- This is a close up-picture of one of the lamps in the set. The color is applied to the glass envelope with a very delicate water soluble paint, which damages easily. One of the disadvantages of early lamps of this type was that they burned at an alarmingly high temperature-high enough in fact to cause a serious burn. 120 volt lamps with a carbon filament were actually not suitable for Christmas decorating, and this is one of the reasons for the rarity of this type of set. Series wired sets with 15 volt bulbs burned much cooler, and were by far the most popular selling outfits until after World War II.
This circa 1907 box of Santa Claus Electric Candles is about half the size of any of the sets like this that I have seen before. It contains a single festoon of eight miniature based sockets, while the more typical outfits contain two three festoons. I believe that there are two possible explanations for this set. First, and probably the most likely, is that it was simply intended to be sold as a single festoon set. While this is the only box of this size I've ever seen, that could simply mean that few of these were made. Other collectors I've contacted about the set have not seen one of this size either. The other possibility is that it could be either a trade sample or salesman's sample set. I think that this is unlikely, however, as the outfit contains two extra lamps for use as replacements, a practice that I would consider to be a bit unusual in a sample offering. I will of course continue my research on this fascinating little set.
A. This extremely rare Touch The Button outfit came to me as a gift from a friend, Chris Cuff. Circa 1909, it is believed that the outfit was manufactured by Jaeger, and 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 the Empire (see immediately below) and 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 outfit was sold by one of the companies, and the possibility also exists that it was made by one of the Jaeger companies and then sold through a third party.
B. A view inside the box showing the 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 real 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 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/resin in the sockets is so very old that it is crumbling, offering me 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 I'm thrilled to have the rare chance to bring this set back to like new condition. I am missing two sockets, so the search is on for a pair of replacements to complete this final festoon.
A. Here is another ca 1910 outfit manufactured by the Jaeger Brothers. This one goes by the name of "Empire". I believe that the box must have had side labels as well as the end labels, but any trace of them has long since disappeared.
B. A look inside the box reveals the 24 socket set (one festoon is currently being repaired) with junction box and green porcelain sockets. The screw-plug in this unit is a bit more modern than the one in the Touch The Button outfit described above.
C. Remarkably, the set retains the original cardboard covered lamp compartment, complete with a wire lifting loop and instructions. Most often, these covers have disappeared or disintegrated over the years.
D. A view of the set with the lamp compartment cover removed, revealing the colorful glass lamps. This outfit contains two rare colors of lamps: purple and amber.
A- Another outfit by General Electric, circa 1910. Also a multiple wired set, the outfit contains two festoons of seven lights each. It appears that the wooden box was purchased as overstock from another company, as the dimensions did not properly fit GE's pre-made cardboard dividers for the lamp compartments. By holding the box lid at an angle to the light, there seem to be indentations indicating an embossed name under the paper label.
B- A look inside the box, showing the double festoon and the lamp compartment. The top layer of the compartment removes, revealing more lamps.
C- A close up of the sockets and one of the looped carbon filament colored glass lamps.
D- A close up of the lid of the box. Typically, these outfits have labels on the ends and sides of the box, but this example has none, and there are no indications that any were ever present.
A- This 1914 outfit from American Ever Ready is actually a window display, intended to entice shoppers into the store to ask about the wondrous new electric tree lighting systems. It is a working 16 lamp outfit with the usual Edison style miniature base carbon filament lamps. The more typical retail version of an Ever Ready outfit is depicted in figure "C" below.
B- Here is an inside view of the box, showing the ceramic sockets and the lamps protected from harm within a separate section. There are two layers of eight lamps, all in assorted colors. The instructions on the inside of the lid indicate that the lamps are two candlepower, an early brightness rating system in use before tungsten filaments brought about the more accurate watt rating system.
A- An Ever Ready outfit, circa 1918. This outfit demonstrates a very early use of miniature base flame lamps from Japan, machine molded and with much larger glass envelopes than the later bulbs. These lamps have carbon filaments.
B- This is a box of imported Japanese carbon filament replacement bulbs. Boxes like this contained "balanced" lamps, all of relatively even brightness. One of the disadvantages of carbon filaments is that the light output of individual units is very difficult to control. Factories therefore offered lamps in matched sets so all of the lamps on a string would burn with similar intensity. Circa 1918.
C- Manufactured by Ever Ready, this is a very typical outfit by that company. Circa 1914, this example is an 8 light set- the company offered outfits in 16, 24 and 32 lamps as well. Included with the kit are spring clips, that when inserted into small holes in the socket bases allow the lights to be attached to tree branches. The top picture is of the end label on the box.