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Early History of Electric Christmas Lighting in America
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The first reported electrically lit Christmas tree, December 1882.The world's first practical light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison in 1879, and a mere three years later in 1882 an associate of his, one Edward Johnson, electrically lit a Christmas tree for the first time. The tree was in the parlor of Johnson's New York City home, located in the first section of that city to be wired for electricity. The display created quite a stir, and was recorded by a visiting reporter named Croffut in the Detroit Post and Tribune:     

"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."

Some might question this ‘first’ from Edward Johnson, as there are several published references to a very different story. This other reference credits a man named Ralph Morris with the invention of the electrically lighted tree. The tale goes that in 1908, Ralph witnessed his son Leavitt push a candle over on a Christmas tree, nearly setting the tree and house on fire. He was an employee of the New England Telephone Company, and came up with the idea of using telephone switchboard lights to illuminate a tabletop feather tree. Years later, Leavitt, still thinking his father was the first person to come up with the idea of lighting a tree electrically, wrote an article about this in a 1952 article for the Christian Science Monitor, claiming his father invented Christmas tree lights. This charming but inaccurate assumption has often been repeated and quoted as fact.  

By a strange twist of fate, Mr. Morris' tree has joined the author’s collection. Purchased from a listing on eBay, this tree originally appeared here on the site only as an interesting electrified feather tree.  A Morris family member, seeing the tree on the site, identified it as Ralph's original and was happy to see the tree on the site for public viewing. The family member told of how her grandmother hated the fact that Ralph painted the base of the tree enamel green, and thought it made the whole thing hideous. Ralph had added a square piece of wood to the original tree base as a stabilizer, due to the increased weight of the lights and power cord. He then painted the contraption with a bright green kitchen enamel, to make everything match.

Ralph Morris' hand-wired feather tree from 1908. Note the painted green base and the added square of wood at the bottom to stabilize the tree A close-up of the uppermost lamp, showing the interesting looped carbon filament of the salvaged telephone switchboard lamp.



Feather tree base as it would have originally appeared.

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.
How an Electrician Amused His Children.

     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.
     It stood about six feet high, in an upper room, last evening, and dazzled persons entering the room. There were 120 lights on the tree, with globes of different colors, while the light tinsel work and usual adornment of Christmas trees appeared to their best advantage in illuminating the tree. Mr. Johnson had placed a little Edison dynamo at the foot of the tree, which, by passing a current through from the large dynamo in the cellar of the house, converted it into a motor. By means of this motor the tree was made to revolve with a steady, regular motion. The lights were divided into six sets, one set of which was lighted at a time in front as the tree went round. By a simple devise (SIC) of breaking and making connection through copper bands around the tree with corresponding buttons, the sets of lights were turned out and on at regular intervals as the tree turned around. The first combination was of pure white light, then, as the revolving tree severed the connection of the current that supplied it and made connection with a second set, red and white lights appeared. Then came yellow and white and other colors. Even combinations of the colors were made. By dividing the current from the large dynamo, Mr. Johnson could stop the motion of the tree without putting out the lights.
     The mechanism by which the shifting of the lights is made has been patented by Mr. Johnson, who believes that its use will be invaluable in scenic effects. The changes can be made with clockwork regularity, while the field for combinations and effects is almost unlimited. There is no house in the city in which electrical lighting is put to more novel uses than in Mr. Johnson's. As one enters the parlor a bright grate fire attracts attention. On examination the discovery is made that it is of colored paper, which is never consumed, but under which electric lights are hidden. The brilliancy of the effect of the painting on a porcelain urn surprises the visitor. Inside the jar is an electric light. The brightness of the chandeliers and brackets is emphasized by means of the electric lights.
     The house is the first in the city in which electric lights were supplied from a current generated in an isolated plant. The dynamo is in the cellar and makes so little noise that it can not be heard on the floor above. A small engine supplies the dynamo, and the steam after running the dynamo is used in heating the house. Mr. Johnson's experiments have proved most satisfactory in almost every respect and he has promised to make a connection with one or two of his neighbor's houses that they may also be lighted with electricity. 

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..."

Click to enlarge
This image from Edison's catalog has been kindly shared with us by
Tim Tromp. The catalog is from his collection, and It may be
viewed in its entirety at Tim's website:
bulbcollector.com


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
ISBN  0-87842-460-1).

By 1900, 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 Christmastime use!
 

  

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 Click to see more Christmas features, including stories, music, and craft resources. 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. 





1901 GE Advertisement, promoting sale or rental of Christmas light bulbs, from the
November, 1901 issue of McClure's Magazine. The ad refers to a leaflet published
by the company which included instructions on hand wiring a tree for lights.

 

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.

                     

Circa 1903-1904 General Electric Christmas lighting outfit, one of the first sets offered for
sale to the public.


The cost of General Electric's first offering of Christmas lights was $12.00 for a set of  24 lights, enough to light a medium sized table-top tree. This was considered extremely expensive in 1903, as the average wage for the time was a mere 22
¢ per hour, which equaled a weekly paycheck of about $13.20. (Remember that in 1903, an average work week was six 10 hour days).

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