The world's first practical light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison in 1879, (CLICK HERE to see the patent) and it was to be only three years later that an associate of his, one Edward Johnson, electrically lit a Christmas tree for the first time. The tree was in the parlor of his New York home, located in the first section of that city to be wired for electricity. The display created quite a stir, and was dutifully recorded by a reporter named Croffut in the Detroit Post and Tribune:

The first electrically lit Christmas tree, December, 1882."Last evening I walked over beyond Fifth Avenue and called at the residence of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison's electric company. There, at the rear of the beautiful parlors, 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 eighty 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 result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white, blue, white, red, blue---all evening. 

I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight---one can hardly imagine anything prettier. The ceiling was crossed obliquely with two wires on which hung 28 more of the tiny lights; and all the lights and the fantastic tree itself with its starry fruit were kept going by the slight electric current brought from the main office on a filmy wire. The tree was kept revolving by a little hidden crank below the floor which was turned by electricity.  It was a superb exhibition."

As a side note here, let me address a question that I often get about the first electrically lit Christmas tree. There is another story that has been frequently reported that credits Ralph Morris as the inventor of electric Christmas lights. The story goes that Ralph, seeing his son push a candle over on a Christmas tree, nearly set the tree on fire and ended up singeing his hair. Ralph came up with the idea of pulling the lights from an old telephone switchboard and wiring them on a tree, and thusly "inventing" the electric Christmas tree lights. This incident is actually true, but it happened in 1908. Up until the early 1930s, Mr. Morris' family truly believed he had invented electric lighting for trees, totally unaware of Edward Johnson and his parlor tree. I have seen this story, in various versions, presented on the internet and in published works as the origin of electrically lighted trees. But this incident happened more than 25 years after Edward Johnson displayed his tree.

  Since public distribution of electricity was not yet common, those living outside of a major city who desired one of these wonderful trees had to supply their own electric power, typically from household generators. In addition, the services of a "wireman" had to be obtained, as few people were willing or even able to undertake the job of hand wiring all of the lights on the tree themselves. Electric socket outfits had not been invented, and it was a tedious task at best to wire all of the lights necessary to illuminate a room sized tree. Although intrigued, the public was not yet convinced of the practicality of electric trees.

single_festoon_lamp.jpg (8765 bytes)
circa 1900 socketless festoon type Christmas lamp

In 1895, President Cleveland proudly sponsored the first electrically lit Christmas tree in the White House. It was a huge specimen, featuring more than aDecember, 1911 Popular Electricity Magazine. Note the miniature light bulbs hanging from the tree boughs. hundred multicolored lights. Finally, the general public was taking notice, and it was not  long afterward that members of "high society" were hosting Christmas Tree parties. They were grand events indeed, as a typical lighted tree of the early 1900s cost upwards of $300 (more than $2000 today), including the generator and wireman's services. Still out of range for the average American family, smaller and less expensive battery-operated lighting strings were decorating the trees of those adventurous enough to do the wiring. In fact, an article in Popular Electricity Magazine had an piece for children, explaining how to light the family tree with battery-powered electric lights. The back pages had instructions on ordering the necessary wire, sockets and light bulbs. General Electric even offered miniature light bulbs 1902 Edison advertisement, offering Christmas light bulbs for sale or rent.for rent in some cities, as an alternative to an outright purchase of the expensive lamps. But electric tree lighting was not to be truly practical until the General Electric Company came to the rescue in 1903. That year, GE offered a pre-assembled lighting outfit for the first time. Still quite expensive at $12.00 (the total weekly wage for an average worker and the equivalent of about $80.00 today),  many department stores in the larger, electrified cities would rent outfits for the season for $1.50. Called a "festoon", the outfit consisted of eight green pre-wired porcelain sockets, eight Edison miniature base colored glass lamps, and a handy screw-in plug for easy attachment to a nearby wall or ceiling light socket. The set was suitable for a table-top size tree: 

circa 1905 Rental Christmas Tree Lighting Outfit


Below is a transcript of the contents of a colorful booklet put out by General Electric in 1903:


General Electric Flyer No. 2134

"In electrically lighted houses, the use of Miniature Incandescent Lamps renders possible most attractive effects and gives an added charm to all forms of decorations. Such lamps, by their small size and inconspicuous shape, are especially adapted for table, foliage and general house decorations. Having no flame, they are clean and safe to handle. They are instantaneously lighted by the touch of a button, and they will burn for as long as desired without attention. The only drawback to their general use has been the trouble and expense of wiring them so they could be connected to the lighting circuit. This difficulty has now been overcome by a completely wired outfit, in which miniature sockets and flexible cord are connected together, all made up and ready for immediate use.

This outfit consists of a number of feet of flexible cord with a regular attaching plug at one end, and branch festoons, each having eight miniature pendant porcelain sockets wired thereon. With the outfit is supplied the necessary  number of Miniature Decorative Edison Lamps, plain and in colors.
To arrange the lighting decoration, it is necessary only to screw the attaching plug into the nearest regular lamp socket, drape the wires over the table or object to be decorated, screw the little lamps into their sockets, and the decoration is complete!
The outfit is simple, flexible, thoroughly constructed and perfectly safe. It is neatly packed in an attractively decorated wooden box and forms a most useful and serviceable device, which should be in every electrically lighted home. It is useful as a general house decoration for the dinner table, for the ornamentation of walls, columns, balustrades, chandeliers, and for decorations of flowers, foliage, etc.
The full cost is low, considering that the Miniature Lamps are included, and an outfit once purchased will last for years and can be used repeatedly with little trouble and no additional expense.
The outfits will be supplied for eight lamps and multiples of eight; that is 8, 16, 24, etc. lamps. The junction plug is so constructed that extra festoons can be connected, and thus the size of the outfit in number of lamps may be increased or reduced as desired." 

"The following is a list of the sizes supplied:

Complete outfit, consisting of one festoon of eight sockets and ten lamps--six plain, two frosted and two red--$5.00

Complete outfit, consisting of two festoons of eight sockets each for a total of sixteen sockets in all and nineteen lamps--thirteen plain, three frosted and three red--$8.50

Complete outfit, consisting of three festoons of eight sockets each for a total of 24 sockets in all and twenty eight lamps--twenty plain, four frosted and four red--$12.00

Extra festoons, ready for connection to outfit, consisting of eight sockets and nine lamps--six plain, two frosted and one red--$4.00

Main Lamp Sales Office
Harrison, New Jersey"


It is interesting to note that while GE sold the first prewired string of lights to the American public, it did not manufacture the string. That honor goes to the American Eveready Company, You will recognize the Eveready name as being associated with batteries today. Eveready did not sell festoons under their own name until a few years later.

The advertisement pictured on the left was sponsored by circa 1910 American Ever Ready Christmas tree lighting set.GE, and was published in a 1901 GE Ad from Scientific American MagazineDecember, 1905 edition of Scientific American Magazine, extolling the virtues of electric lights for the Christmas tree. Pictured on the right is a circa 1910 tree outfit made and sold by the American Ever Ready Company.  (See the 1900-1920 section of  The Light Sets category for more pictures of some of the earliest lighting outfits.) 


The American Eveready Company tried to patent their lighting strings, but were unable to, as when the company's patent applications were presented to the United States Patent and Trademark Office for consideration, the courts decided that the socket sets were "based on common electrical knowledge" and not actually a new invention. It was not long after the decision was handed down that several companies began offering lighting sets of their own, and the American electric Christmas lighting industry was born.

End of Category





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