By Brad Dison
For many of us, Christmas trees covered with meaningful ornaments and lit by the warm glow of Christmas lights are at the center of our Christmas celebration. In the sixteenth century, Protestant Christian reformer Martin Luther began using candles to decorate his Christmas trees and the practice quickly spread. As you can imagine, open-flame candles on dead trees with drying needles was a constant fire hazard. Regardless of the danger, people kept up the tradition. Fires from these festive holiday decorations destroyed houses and took many lives.
Thomas Edison is largely remembered as the father of the electric light, although nearly two dozen inventors developed working light bulbs before Edison. The Wizard of Menlo Park, as Edison is often called, bought several of these inventors’ patents. He and his engineers began trials to create a better, longer-lasting, light bulb. Edison and his team tried hundreds of filaments and kept improving the electric light bulb. The eureka moment came when they tried a carbon filament. While other filaments they tried only lasted a few seconds, the carbon filament lasted for days. In 1879, Edison filed a patent for his electric light made with a carbon filament and searched for ways to market his light bulb. The following year, Edison’s engineers wired several bulbs on a strand of wire and strung them on the façade of the Edison Illuminating Company as an advertisement for electric lighting. At the time, lights were not yet used as Christmas decorations.
Two years later, in 1882, Edward H. Johnson, vice president of the Edison Illuminating Company, searched for ways to expand the product line for the electric light bulb. Johnson hand-wired 80 red, white, and blue light bulbs on a single strand of wire. He carefully placed the bulbs onto his freshly-cut Christmas tree. Johnson’s Christmas tree also rotated, an aspect of Christmas trees which has recently become popular again. People marveled at Johnson’s electrified Christmas tree.
Electric Christmas tree lights did not catch on at first. Many people who had access to electricity feared it. In 1891, Edison’s company installed electric lighting in the White House. President Benjamin Harrison was so fearful of being electrocuted that he refused to touch the light switches. The job of turning the lights on and off in the White House fell to domestic staff.
Fast-forward 35 years. In 1917, teenager Albert Sadacca suggested that his family’s novelty lighting company add strands of brightly-colored Christmas lights to their product line. It took a few years, but in the 1920s, decorating with Christmas lights became all the rage. Sadly, Edward Johnson, the first person to put electric lights on a Christmas tree, did not live to see the Christmas light boom. In September, 1917, the same year Sadacca suggested that his family sell Christmas lights, Johnson died in an electrical accident.
Although safer than candles, electric Christmas lights still posed a fire hazard. The bulbs got extremely hot and the dried needles of the evergreen Christmas trees regularly caught fire, but at a much lower rate than open-flamed candles. The danger of fire was one prohibitive factor that prevented the Christmas lights from catching on, but there was another, more prominent reason why people were reluctant to purchase them.
Until 1917, families wanting to decorate their Christmas trees with electric lights had to have electricity available in their homes. In 1920, only about 35% of homes had electricity. They had to purchase the pre-packaged lighting kit from the Edison Lighting Company. Finally, they had to hire electricians to wire and install the lights on the Christmas tree.
These days, Christmas lights are inexpensive. Back then, as with any new technology, the cost to be among the first to enjoy the cutting edge of technology was expensive. If you lived during the turn of the century, you, too, could enjoy a Christmas tree lit by electric Christmas lights… if you had what in today’s money would be about $2,000.00.