The fascinating history of Christmas lights

ISABEL BRAVERMAN
Posted 12/7/16

Thomas Edison invented the first practical electric light bulb, so it only seems fitting that an associate at his company invented the Christmas light. Edison was known for unveiling his creations in …

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The fascinating history of Christmas lights

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Thomas Edison invented the first practical electric light bulb, so it only seems fitting that an associate at his company invented the Christmas light. Edison was known for unveiling his creations in extravagant ways; putting on a show to dazzle the audience. The presentation of Christmas lights was no different. Edison employee Edward Johnson displayed the first electrically illuminated Christmas tree at his home in Manhattan in 1882.

The press, perhaps wary of Edison’s publicity stunts, didn’t cover the event. However, a newspaper in Detroit picked up the story, according to Wikipedia, and “Johnson has become widely regarded as the Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights.”

While we may take Christmas lights for granted now, they weren’t always an available commodity. Years after Edison and Co. debuted the lights, the average American consumer couldn’t actually afford to buy them for their own homes. In 1900, the first known advertisement for Christmas lights appeared in Scientific American Magazine, and it suggests people rent the lights. At that time, a single string of electric lights cost $12—around $300 in today’s money.

It took 25 years after that for the lights to become more popular. There were 15 companies in the business of selling Christmas lights, and in 1925 they formed a consortium called the NOMA Electric Corporation, the largest Christmas light manufacturer in the world. However, it would take even longer—the mid-1950s—for lights to become affordable for the average household.

But before there were lights, there was fire. Christmas trees were lit with candles, which—as you can imagine—was not safe at all. Trees were put up only a few days before December 25, and promptly taken down afterwards. The candles would be lit for only a few minutes at a time, with onlookers vigilantly watching it, buckets of water in hand. It was so dangerous that insurance companies wouldn’t pay for damages caused by Christmas tree fires.

Of course, today’s technology has improved, and we now have safe and affordable incandescent bulbs. There are generally three types of lights. The mini/fairy light is the most common one you’ll see. The C7 are the larger lights, about the size of your thumb. And then there are LED lights, which are the most energy efficient.

From open-flame candles to dazzling displays of strings of bulbs that won’t burn your house down (probably), Christmas lights have come a long way. Now it’s all about which house can put on the biggest holiday light show.

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