A Brief History of Christmas Tree Lights

Like Bert and Ernie or pork and fennel, Christmas trees and lights were made for each other. But how did stringing up a few hundred twinkling lights on a pine tree become a normal part of Christmas merrymaking?

Make Like a Tree and Get in the House

Well, it all started with the pagans. The ritual use of evergreens and lights during winter celebrations predates Christianity. Their symbolism (life in the dead of winter) must not have been lost on Christians, who adopted the pagan Yule log and began bringing evergreen trees into their homes during the winter. In the 17th century, the Germans combined the two elements and the tradition of illuminating the Christmas tree with candles began (legend has it that Martin Luther, inspired by a starry Christmas Eve sky, lit the first tree a century earlier, but the first documented references to a lit tree come from 1660).

The Christmas tree came to the United States in the early 19th century with the German-speaking Moravians (who often practiced the "putzing" or "dressing up" of the tree with decorative ornaments), who settled in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. One of the earliest documented references to a Christmas tree in America comes from a 1821 journal entry by Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who saw his friends "on the hill at Kendrick's saw mill" looking for a good tree to put in the living room.

Christmas trees quickly spread from German enclaves and became an established part of American Christmas celebrations.

In 1832, Harvard University professor Charles Follen, inspired by German tradition, may have been the first American to illuminate a Christmas tree when he decorated his with candles. In 1851, Mark Carr opened the first Christmas tree retail operation, cutting down trees in the Catskill Mountains and selling them at New York City's Washington Market. In 1856, the illuminated Christmas tree hit the big time when President Franklin Pierce had the White House tree decorated with candles.

The candle-lit Christmas tree, to no one's surprise, had some problems. For one, it was hard to keep the candles attached to the branches. People tried pinning the candle down with a needle, tying the candle to the branch with wire or string, and using melted wax as an adhesive. None of these methods worked very well. Fortunately, a breakthrough came in the form of Frederick Artz's 1878 invention: a clip-on candleholder. But even if you got the candles to stay, there was the little manner of having a very large, vary flammable tree in your living room. People usually kept the candles lit for no longer than 30 minutes at a time, kept an eye on the tree the whole time, and always had a bucket of sand or water at the ready in case of fire. Of course, accidents still happened. Eventually, a group of insurance companies collectively refused to pay for fires started by Christmas trees and began putting a "knowing risks" clause in their policies.

The Christmas Tree, Like Bob Dylan, Goes Electric

1st-xmas-treeOn December 22, 1882, Edward Johnson—a friend of Thomas Edison and vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company—displayed the first electrically illuminated Christmas tree in the parlor of his New York City home (pictured). The tree, powered by an Edison generator (Johnson lived in the first section of the city to be wired for electricity), featured eighty hand-wired red, white and blue light bulbs—which, according to a reporter from the Detroit Post and Tribune, were each as "large as an English walnut"—and sat on a motorized box that rotated it "some six times a minute."Â  Over the next few years, Johnson and Edison experimented with and improved upon Johnson's electric tree lights. In 1890, they took them to the market place, publishing a 28-page brochure about "Edison miniature lamps for Christmas trees" and placing ads for the product in popular magazines.

Electric tree lights, like the illuminated tree before them, got national attention when they made their debut at the White House on Grover Cleveland's 1895 Christmas tree. Most people who weren't the President of the United States would have to wait for their own electric tree lights, however. Public distribution of electricity was spotty, and most people living outside major cities would have had to supply their own electric power from a household generator. Lighting an average-sized tree would have also been prohibitively expensive for most people. The generator, the fee for the wireman who would need to hand-wire all the lights on the tree, and the wire and lights themselves would usually cost upwards of $300.

A Chicken in Every Pot and an Electric Christmas Tree in Every Living Room

In 1903, a breakthrough in electric lighting technology came when GE offered the first pre-wired string of tree lights to the public. The string of lights, called a "festoon," consisted of a string of eight pre-wired porcelain sockets, eight Edison miniature colored glass lamps, and a screw-in plug for a wall socket (the length of wire all this was attached to was not made by GE, but the American Eveready Company, which would go on to become part of the National Carbon Company and give the world the long-lasting alkaline battery).

Festoons were still pretty expensive at $12 per string (slightly less than an average week's wages for many people), but that problem would be solved when GE attempted to patent their Christmas lighting festoon. The patent application was refused, because the product was based on knowledge that an ordinary wireman possessed. With the market wide open, other companies and inventors began to produce their own tree light sets and the American Christmas light industry was born.

One early Christmas light entrepreneur was teenager Albert Sadacca, who convinced his parents to use the material from their novelty lighting business to produce affordable tree light sets. He later started a trade organization called the National Outfit Manufacturers Association (NOMA). NOMA eventually became the NOMA Electric Co. and dominated the Christmas light market until the 1960s, when competition from foreign imports drove them into bankruptcy and out of the lighting business.

This article originally appeared last December.

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From Campaign Slogans to Social Movements, New Book Explores the Role Buttons Have Played Throughout History

Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon
Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

From their early days on the campaign trail during the 1896 presidential race to their current role as a way of showing support for social causes like the LGBTQIA+ pride movement, pinback buttons have remained one of the most popular ways for people to express their values and beliefs for well over a century. And now, button experts Christen Carter, founder of Chicago’s Busy Beaver Button Company and the Button Museum, and Ted Hake, owner of Hake’s Auctions, have put their extensive knowledge of the subject into the new book Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons ($25), a cultural journey showcasing 1500 of the most important and unique pinbacks throughout American history.

“Buttons seem like really a niche thing, but they really are very general,” Carter tells Mental Floss. “They cover so much history, and the history goes deep and wide.”

For the book, Hake and Carter—who both began collecting buttons during their respective childhoods—cover how buttons have been used to communicate messages during their 125-year history, from pinbacks featuring landmark political slogans and anti-war sentiments to others that simply proclaim a person's love of Dallas.

“[Buttons] are little windows on the world, and you can pick an avenue and head down to your heart's content,” Hake tells Mental Floss.

Some of the 20th century's most important moments had a button to go along with them.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

One of Hake's favorite buttons in the book doesn't feature a political or social statement—it's just a picture of a buffalo with the words “Eat Me at Bremen, Kans. June 9, 1935” emblazoned across it. But it wasn't just the design that really caught his attention; it was also its backstory.

The button's origins lie within the town of Bremen, Kansas, which, in June 1935, was celebrating both its 50th anniversary and the dedication of a marker for the defunct Oregon Trail, according to Kansas Historical Quarterly. Two weeks before the celebration, 500 townspeople gathered in Bremen to watch a buffalo get slaughtered, which was then shipped to the neighboring town’s ice house for preservation. When the big day finally arrived, the buffalo was shipped back to become the centerpiece of a community-wide feast. The button was made to spread the word for the unique event.

“Here he is on this button, inviting the good folks of Bremen to enjoy him,” Hake says. “So it is a little bit surreal, to tell you the truth.” During his research, Hake recovered this niche historical event that could’ve otherwise been easily lost to history. “At the end of the day, they capped it off with supper, a band concert, and they gave away a baby buffalo calf,” he says.

Buttons have been used to express both support and opposition to the United States's involvement in wars. Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

While pinback button technology has not changed drastically in the past 125 years, Hake and Carter still consider their golden era to be from 1896 to 1921. “The colors are just unusual and beautiful,” Carter says. “They were able to get fine details that, [even] with digital printing, we can’t do.” Carter also enjoys how buttons were used as a communication device during the punk movement, saying, “They're important identifiers to a counter-culture movement, and they were not afraid to piss people off.”

Though the book covers buttons featuring celebrities, bands, and brands, many of the most popular ones come from the political arena and sports. Hake’s Auction just set the record for the most expensive pinback sold on September 23, 2020, with a 1916 Boston Red Sox World Series button that went for $62,980. “What makes it great is that every team member is on the button and up at 11 o’clock is one Babe Ruth. He was in his second year and was a pitcher back in those days,” Hake explains.

Even though there are buttons like the Babe Ruth ones that sell for thousands of dollars, it's still an accessible hobby for everyone. “You can start your button collection with just $10 and already have a good start. It is a good thing to collect if you don’t have much money or much space,” Carter explains.

The power of the political button eventually became fertile ground for satire in the '70s.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

Looking forward to the next 125 years, Carter hopes that buttons can become more eco-friendly by eliminating steel use and replacing it with recycled materials. “They haven’t changed that much in the last 125 years. They are pretty timeless in that way, and they are inexpensive, so whatever keeps them as inexpensive as possible as resources change in the next 100 years, they will probably change."

You can order Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons on Amazon or on the Princeton Architectural Press website.

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