MATCHLESS WONDER STARS
The Matchless Wonder Stars are some of the most highly collected of all vintage Christmas lights. It takes only a brief look at these wonderful lights to see why.
On May 2, 1935 Paul C. Dittman of Chicago filed an application for a patent for what he called simply "Decorative Lighting Device". In the patent he described it as "an ornamental device embodying a multiplicity of of prismatic light diffusing bodies with a light source..."
He related that while he was aware that others had patented lighted stars, his offering was different in that the light would enter the rays of the star radially, effectively refracting the light within the ray and producing a "pleasing effect."
His description of the refracted light produced by the stars was a bit of an understatement, as anyone who has seen them illuminated can attest: a lighted Matchless Wonder Star is stunningly beautiful. His patent was granted on December 8, 1936.
In March of 1937, Arthur Stechbart, an associate of Mr. Dittman's, was issued a patent for a variety of Matchless Star that had a bakelite base, allowing for different sizes of lamps to be used for illumination. Other patents were issued as well, even one a tree top version of the glass lights. Here are some of those patent drawings:
Paul Dittman, a German immigrant who passed through the gates of Ellis Island in New York City, worked for a time for George Westinghouse, where he got an education in the manufacturing of electric light bulbs. In 1912, Paul and his partners started the Matchless Electric Company, which was later incorporated (in 1918) "to manufacture, buy, sell and deal in electric supplies, light bulbs and radio tubes..." By 1930, the direction of the Company had changed a bit, and it was re-named The Century Lamp and Tube Company to reflect the fact that it was by this time the largest single licensee for the manufacture of RCA radio tubes. In addition to the tubes, the Company produced a large variety of small light bulbs, mainly miniature lamps that were used as indicators in telephone switch boards and various control panels, and automobile lamps as well. These lamps, an example of which is pictured below, are round, miniature based style with outside painted colors. These was even a Matchless brand set of Christmas lights available, which was a typical series string of eight cone shaped lamps.
In 1929, Mr. Dittman was the principle stockholder of a company incorporated as the D-G Electric Company, whose business was "to deal in all kinds and descriptions of electrical devices..." By 1931, the Company was renamed The Matchless Electric Company, and in 1934 the Century Lamp and Tube Company was dissolved.
Although the exact production dates are unknown, it is assumed that The Matchless Electric Company of Chicago, Illinois made and sold these glass-prismed Christmas lights starting in about 1935, and continuing through the late 40s.The production of the Stars was a seasonal business for The Matchless Company, but Jim Dittman, inventor Paul's son, reports that the Stars were "my father's pride and joy." They were available in several sizes and many color combinations, and the glass points were made and hand cut in Czechoslovakia. The lights were assembled and boxed in the United States. The earliest of these lights had a small paper label on one of the glass prisms, with "Made in Czechoslovakia" printed on it. The sticker was a bit confusing, as it referred only to the glass points and not the entire Star. During most of the year, the Company produced their regular stock of sewing machine, auto, radio pilot, aviation and instrument miniature lamps.
After World War II, the Company started selling their larger Stars made in Lucite instead of glass, as Communist occupation had cut off supplies of the needed Czechoslovakian crystal.
Below is a chart of the available sizes and series numbers of Stars made over the years:
This page from a late 1930s hardware supply catalog features double Stars with various lamp sizes and color combinations. Also note the replacement lamps-something collectors would kill to get their hands on today, as the lamps with the bakelite backs have not been made for many years. Matchless Stars were some of the first Christmas lights offered with the ability to easily change the light bulb. NOMA had earlier offered their Dresden figural lights with changeable lamps, but the system was flawed and the socket parts froze together, making lamp exchange impossible.
Collectors who have researched these lights say that the Matchless Company did practically no advertising of this product, and references to the Stars can only be found in catalogs of the time. The 1939 and 1940 editions of Montgomery Wards Christmas catalogs feature them, and several hardware trade catalogs show the Stars. Matchless sold their Stars through the Marshall Fields stores as well. A major downside to these beautiful lights was their price-usually between 18 and 20 cents for a single row series 100 Star. While seemingly inexpensive in today's dollars, keep in mind that America was dealing with the effects of The Great Depression, and money was tight. An average Christmas tree of the time would feature between 40 and 48 miniature base series wired lights, and to fill the tree with Matchless Stars would have cost about $7.60. A typical boxed set of eight standard Christmas lights with the electrical cord sold for 65 cents in 1937, and a dozen eggs went for 12 cents. Spending almost $8.00 on Christmas lights was beyond the reach of many, so the Matchless Company wisely offered their Stars for sale singly as well as in sets of eight or ten.
The company offered their Stars in many different color combinations, with both clear and frosted crystals. The frosted varieties are by far the hardest to come by. The colors making up the various combinations are shown in the chart below. Although many colors appear in the chart, they are actually manufacturing variations of only 8 basic colors. The points were offered in red, green, aqua, steel blue, amethyst, pink, amber and clear. The center jewels were produced in red, green, amber and blue. Milk glass center stones are occasionally seen, and are almost certainly Canadian products, and most of the Canadian-produced Stars are of a deeper color than those sold in the United States. In the chart below, variations of basic colors are grouped in parenthesis and shown in the first section only, although these variations appeared in all series of Stars. Due to the Communist occupation of Czechoslovakia after World War II, the Matchless company found it difficult to obtain the proper quality glass crystals needed for the manufacture of their Stars. A redesign became necessary, and the larger Stars were then made in Lucite, and molded in one piece instead of individual points.
Here are two boxed sets of Stars. The container on the left is a countertop unit, designed to sell Stars individually. The middle picture is of the inside of the box, and the box on the right is a complete outfit which includes the cord. This box is a Canadian set, branded with the NOMA name. NOMA was the exclusive licensee for the sale of Matchless Stars in Canada. Although the box art shows double Stars, the contents and printed item number are for single Stars. Little is known about the Canadian Matchless Stars, but it has been reported that many of them were sold in the Lucite versions.
An interesting side note here is that the Matchless Stars were used in several pinball machines produced in the very late 1930s and early 40s. On the right is a page from The Billboard magazine, proudly showing the Exhibit Supply Company's new Avalon model, featuring 17 Matchless stars as the bumper lights. The ad describes the game as "the most gorgeous, most beautiful, most brilliant game in all the world!' and is dated July 29, 1939. Other models of machines using the Stars were named Airliner, Flash and Contact. Matchless Stars that were used in the pinball machines have unusual bakelite backs that screw off, enabling the bulbs within to be changed easily. these backs also have permanently attached wires that allow the socket to be electrically connected to the machine's wiring harness.
In the years following World War II, The Matchless Electric Company continued to produce Stars with prisms made of Lucite. The Company produced the lamps for NOMA's earliest bubble lights as well, providing 15 volt clear, round lamps. (Later bubble lights used flat topped General Electric lamps). Production of all Stars, both acrylic and glass, ceased in the mid 1950s. The corporation was dissolved in 1954, but the company itself continued in business until 1961. It is unknown what products the company produced during their last years.
(Web site visitor Jim Rankin of Milwaukee, WI has written a very detailed article on the repair and re-lamping of burned out Matchless stars. You can view his article HERE.)
(Much of the information on this page is from a paper published by Bill and Treva Courter entitled "The Matchless Electric Company and Their Wonder Stars". Additional information kindly supplied by James Dittman and Jim Sloss