"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."
Edison's tree was of course quite a novelty for the time, and I suspect a bit of a publicity stunt as well. (It is interesting to note that none of the local New York City papers seemed to have reported on the display). However, two years later in 1884, Johnson repeated and improved upon his original lighted tree. This time, the New York Times did report the event. It is surprising that the report went into some rather technical detail, considering that the story appeared in a social column of the paper. It is is quoted here in its entirety:
A BRILLIANT CHRISTMAS TREE.
A pretty as well as novel Christmas tree was shown to a few friends by Mr.
E. H. Johnson, President of the Edison Company for Electric Lighting, last
evening in his residence, No. 139 East Thirty-sixth-street. The tree was
lighted by electricity, and children never beheld a brighter tree or one
more highly colored than the children of Mr. Johnson when the current was
turned (SIC) and the the tree began to revolve. Mr. Johnson has been
experimenting with house lighting by electricity for some time past, and
he determined that his children should have a novel Christmas tree.
In 1890, Edison published a small, 28 page promotional brochure/catalog that included within its pages what might well be the first commercial mention of the use of electrically lighting a Christmas tree. On page 14, the catalog reads:
"There are few forms of decoration more beautiful and pleasing than miniature incandescent lamps placed among flowers, or interwoven in garlands or festoons; for decorating Christmas trees or conservatories..."
In the book Christmas in the Old West, author Sam Travers quotes from a December 29, 1891 letter by Elizabeth Chester Fisk to her parents in Connecticut. Mrs. Fisk and her husband were early settlers living in Montana. Describing their frontier Christmas to her parents, Mrs. Fisk says that, " . . . we lit the tree using electric lights. The effect was good and we had no candles to watch and no wax drippings to clear from the carpet or gifts."
(Travers, Sam. Christmas in the Old West, Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Co., 2003. Page 155
Edison was advertising miniature versions of his electric light bulb for
use on trees in popular magazines. The following advertisement appeared in the
November 28, 1900 edition of Scientific American Magazine. Notice that
Edison's advertising offered to rent the light bulbs for
As mentioned earlier, 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. At this point, electrically lighted trees were a novelty for the rich, and, although intrigued, the public was not yet convinced of the true practicality of electric trees.
In 1895, President Cleveland proudly sponsored the first electrically lit Christmas tree in the White House. It was a huge specimen, featuring more than a hundred multicolored lights. The country took notice, and by the next Christmas 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 in today's dollars), 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 a 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.
Electric tree lighting was not to be truly practical until the first sets of pre-wired sockets, then called festoons, were introduced to the public by GE in 1903. The General Electric Company tried to patent the idea of a Christmas lighting festoon, but the patent was refused. The courts decided that the idea was actually based on knowledge that "any ordinary wireman" possessed, and therefore not patentable. (The General Electric box is pictured below). The critical point in all of this is that when General Electric failed to patent the festoon itself, the market was suddenly wide open. Almost immediately, any company was free to manufacture and sell Christmas tree lighting strings. Many companies did just that, and the American Christmas lighting industry was born.
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