From Edison to LEDs: A Brief History of Christmas Tree Lights

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iStock

As Christmas approaches, millions of Americans will begin the annual tradition of pulling tangled snarls of lights out of their closets and draping them over roofs, across walls, and through the boughs of trees. The 135-year history of how these mass-produced novelty lights became a holiday fixture is a distinctly American Christmas tale.

Americans have lit up Christmas trees since the early 19th century [PDF]—long before the invention of the modern light bulb. In those days, families would decorate trees in their living rooms and then attach burning candles to the branches. Unsurprisingly, this created a serious fire hazard. For safety reasons, families would gather around to light the candles one time each year for at most an hour, usually while standing by with pails of water and bags of sand to douse the flames if the display got out of hand. Still, accidents were so routine that by 1908, a group of American insurers began refusing to pay claims related to Christmas tree fires.

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In 1879, Thomas Edison had just perfected the world’s first practical light bulb and was in the middle of an all-out media blitz to bring attention to his new product. On New Year's Eve, he drew thousands of people to his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where, according to Forbes, he showed off his new invention with “a live outdoor display with dozens of incandescent lamps strung together”—what some call the world’s first string lights.

But Christmas and strings of electric light wouldn’t be tied together for three more years. On December 22, 1882, Edward H. Johnson—an impressively mustachioed inventor and vice president at the Edison Electric Light Company—set up a holiday-themed display in his Manhattan home to demonstrate the beauty of electric light: 80 twinkling red, white, and blue bulbs strung between the boughs of a large Christmas tree, which he mounted on a rotating platform in his living room.

A reporter from the Detroit Post & Tribune could barely contain his enthusiasm for the “fantastic tree with its starry fruit” and the novel lights “encased in these dainty glass eggs”—his old-timey way of describing the multicolored bulbs. “One could hardly imagine anything prettier,” he wrote.

The publicity stunt caught the country’s attention, and by 1890 General Electric had begun manufacturing electric Christmas lights. But in the early years, only the rich could afford them. To install the lights, you needed to buy a generator or battery to provide power, and then you needed to pay a trained “wireman” to individually wire each bulb. Decorating a house could cost as much as $300—about $9000 today. According to a dissertation on Christmas lights by Kerri Dean, the expensive lights became the “rage amongst the wealthy,” and “Christmas tree parties to show off the expensive electric lighted tree became exciting social events for children of high society.”

As technology improved, Christmas lights got cheaper and safer. The early versions burned so hot they could still cause fires, but technological advances began making the bulbs safer. In 1903, department stores began carrying pre-wired strings of eight lights for a hefty $12, more than $300 in today’s dollars. Families who couldn’t afford to buy a string of lights outright could rent one for the season for $1.50—about $40 today. By 1914, a string of lights cost just $1.75, and by the ‘20s Christmas lights were affordable for most Americans.

The White House played a major role in promoting the new trend nationally. In 1894, Grover Cleveland became the first president to celebrate Christmas with electric lights, likely to impress his two young daughters. The tree, according to The Wheeling Register, was “very beautifully trimmed and decorated with tiny parti-colored electric lamps in place of the old-time wax candles.” Cleveland's display featured 100 multicolored bulbs—but it was dwarfed by Calvin Coolidge’s extravaganza of 3000 lights on Christmas of 1923.

But the Christmas light tradition owes most of its success to electric companies, who saw the holiday trend as an opportunity to sell lighting products. An undated pamphlet titled “All the World’s a Stage at Christmas and All the People on it are Lighting Prospects” pushed the idea that holiday light displays were the industry’s best sales pitch. “The world at Christmas time is the background for a gay, spectacular extravaganza,” the pamphlet declared, and on the Christmas stage “there are quantities of lamps to be sold, Christmas lighting equipment, wiring. There are kilowatt-hours to be sold. Lighting this stage is profitable business for the electrical industry.”

Just a few years after Coolidge's tree, the Christmas light industry crowned its first king: the NOMA Electric Company, which would dominate the world of Christmas lights until the 1960s. Its founder, Albert Sadacca, picked an unfortunate time to start a novelty lighting business. But the Christmas light industry weathered the financial storm of the Great Depression through an aggressive advertising campaign that appealed to family, country, and “the importance of a properly celebrated Christmas in trying times such as these.” One 1930 ad in the Saturday Evening Post featured a little boy writing a letter that read “Dear Santy, Please come to our hous this time becos we have it lit up now so you can’t miss it enny more.” A 1932 NOMA catalogue assured that their designs “look right to the American eye” and “fit in with an American Christmas.”

The ad campaign worked, and the 1930s became a renaissance for funky Christmas light designs. NOMA produced lights in the shape of clowns, witches, and Santa Claus. Over the years, light designs changed with American taste. The ‘40s saw a craze of Bubble Lites, shaped like the candles families used to light their trees with. The heat from the bulb in each light would boil a liquid inside the candle-shaped plastic mold, causing the lights to flicker like real flame.

A family around a lighted Christmas tree, circa 1955.Orlando/Three Lions/Getty Images

In the ‘60s, the Christmas light industry looked on in dismay as Americans fell in love with aluminum trees, which are unfortunately good conductors of electricity. Faulty Christmas lights could charge aluminum trees with electricity and zap the next person to touch a branch. Since traditional string lights were potentially lethal on a metal tree, families switched to rotating color wheels instead. This, combined with stiff competition from foreign manufacturers, led NOMA to file for bankruptcy in 1966.

The classic mini light design—the familiar incandescent lights in tubular-shaped bulbs that come on perpetually tangled green wires—was first sold in 1970. They’ve dominated the Christmas light market until the recent rise of LED lights, which use between 80 and 90 percent less electricity and can cost 1 to 2 percent as much to power.

While Christmas tree lights have taken many forms over the past 135 years, the tradition of dragging a dead tree into our living room and setting it aglow has remained a strange fixture of American culture. Just thank Edward H. Johnson for cutting your risk of lighting your house on fire this year.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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Alice Dunnigan, the First Black Woman Journalist to Get White House Press Credentials

Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University // No Known Copyright Restrictions
Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University // No Known Copyright Restrictions

Alice Dunnigan’s birthplace of Russellville, Kentucky, is more than 700 miles from Washington, D.C. And for Black women journalists in the early 20th century, the dream of heading to the Capitol and covering national politics at the highest level seemed even more distant. But Dunnigan overcame racism, sexism, and other obstacles to make history as the first Black woman credentialed to cover the White House. Dunnigan, whose grandparents were born into slavery, would combat discrimination and champion freedom of the press while covering three U.S. presidents.

A Long Road to Writing Success

Born on April 27, 1906, Alice Allison Dunnigan grew up in a cottage on a red clay hill outside Russellville, a former Confederate Civil War stronghold (population 5000). Dunnigan’s father was a tenant farmer, while her mother took in laundry. Their precocious daughter learned to read before entering the first grade, and she began writing for the Owensboro Enterprise when she was just 13. After graduating from the segregated Knob City High School in 1923, she completed a teaching course at Kentucky State University.

During Dunnigan’s 18-year career as a Todd County teacher, her annual salary never topped $800. Her aspirations went beyond teaching: She wrote “Kentucky Fact Sheets,” highlighting Black contributions to state history that the official curriculum omitted, and took journalism classes at Tennessee A&I College (now Tennessee State University). Her two marriages to tobacco farmer Walter Dickenson in 1925 and childhood pal Charles Dunnigan in 1932 did not pan out. To pursue her career, she made the tough decision to have her parents raise Robert, her son from her second marriage, for 17 years. In 1935, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she worked for Black-owned newspapers like the Louisville Defender.

With the Jim Crow era still in force and World War II raging, Dunnigan made her next big move to Washington, D.C., in 1942. Vying to escape poverty, she joined the federal civil service and earned $1440 a year as a War Labor Board clerk. Yet even four years later, when she was working as an economist after studying at Howard University and commanding a $2600 salary—double that of the average Black woman in the nation's capital—journalism kept calling her name.

Dunnigan became a Washington, D.C., correspondent in 1946 for the Associated Negro Press (ANP), the first Black-owned wire service, supplying more than 100 newspapers nationwide. It was her ticket to covering national politics.

Fearlessly Covering the White House

Dunnigan’s passion for journalism didn’t boost her bank account. Claude A. Barnett, her ANP publisher, gave her a starting monthly salary of $100—half of what his male writers earned. “Race and sex were twin strikes against me,” Dunnigan said later. “I’m not sure which was the hardest to break down.” To stay afloat financially, she often pawned her watch and shoveled coal, subsisting on basic food like hog ears and greens. To relax, she drank Bloody Marys and smoked her pipe.

Named ANP’s bureau chief in 1947, Dunnigan forged ahead as a political reporter despite Barnett’s skepticism. “For years we have tried to get a man accredited to the Capitol Galleries and have not succeeded,” Barnett told her. “What makes you think that you—a woman—can accomplish this feat?” Though the ANP had never endorsed her application for a Capitol press pass, Dunnigan's repeated efforts finally paid off. She was approved for a Capitol press pass in July 1947, and swiftly followed up with a successful request for White House media credentials.

In 1948, Dunnigan became a full-fledged White House correspondent. When she was invited to join the press corps accompanying President Harry S. Truman’s re-election campaign, Barnett declined to pay her way—so Dunnigan took out a loan and went anyway. As one of just three Black reporters and the only Black woman covering Truman’s whistle-stop tour out West, she experienced highs and lows.

In Cheyenne, Wyoming, when Dunnigan tried to walk with other journalists behind Truman’s motorcade, a military officer, assuming she was an interloper, pushed her back toward the spectators. Another journalist had to intervene on her behalf. Afterward, Truman found her typing in her compartment on the presidential Ferdinand Magellan train and said, “I heard you had a little trouble. Well, if anything else happens, please let me know.”

Dunnigan later landed a scoop in Missoula, Montana, when Truman got off the train at night in his dressing gown to address a crowd of students. Her headline read: “Pajama Clad President Defends Civil Rights at Midnight.”

Her relationship with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s was more contentious. The two-term Republican president disliked her persistent questions about hiring practices that discriminated against Black Americans, segregation at military base schools, and other civil rights issues. Max Rabb, an Eisenhower advisor, told her she should clear her questions with him in advance to get better answers. She agreed once, but never again. Subsequently, “Honest Ike” ignored Dunnigan at press conferences for years, despite her status as the first Black member of the Women’s National Press Club (1955).

When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he called on Dunnigan eight minutes into his first press conference. She asked about protection for Black tenant farmers who had been evicted from their Tennessee homes simply for voting in the previous election. JFK replied, “I can state that this administration will pursue the problem of providing that protection, with all vigor.” Jet magazine then published this headline: “Kennedy In, Negro Reporter Gets First Answer in Two Years.”

New Career, New Achievements

Later in 1961, Dunnigan found a new calling. President Kennedy appointed her to his Committee on Equal Opportunity, designed to level the playing field for Americans seeking federal government jobs. As an educational consultant, Dunnigan toured the U.S. and gave speeches. In 1967, she switched over to the Council on Youth Opportunity, where she spent four years as an editor, writing articles in support of young Black people.

After retiring, she self-published her 1974 autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. Dunnigan died at age 77 in 1983, but her legacy lives on. In 2013, she was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. CNN’s April Ryan, Lauretta Charlton of the New York Times, and others have hailed her as an inspiration.

In 2018, a 500-pound bronze statue of Dunnigan was unveiled at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Today, it stands outside the Struggles for Equality and Emancipation in Kentucky (SEEK) Museum in her native Russellville—a silent but powerful tribute to a woman who was never short on words.