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

iStock
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.

An illustration, circa 1858, of a family around a Christmas tree lit by candles.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

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.
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.

This Gorgeous Vintage Edition of Clue Sets the Perfect Mood for a Murder Mystery

WS Game Company
WS Game Company

Everyone should have a few good board games lying around the house for official game nights with family and friends and to kill some time on the occasional rainy day. But if your collection leaves a lot to be desired, you can class-up your selection with this great deal on the Vintage Bookshelf Edition of Clue for $40.

A brief history of Clue

'Clue' Vintage Bookshelf Edition.
WS Game Company.

Originally titled Murder!, Clue was created by a musician named Anthony Pratt in Birmingham, England, in 1943, and he filed a patent for it in 1944. He sold the game to Waddington's in the UK a few years later, and they changed the name to Cluedo in 1949 (that name was a mix between the words clue and Ludo, which was a 19th-century game.) That same year, the game was licensed to Parker Brothers in the United States, where it was published as Clue. Since then, there have been numerous special editions and spinoffs of the original game, not to mention books and a television series based on it. Most notably, though, was the cult classic 1985 film Clue, which featured Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren.

As you probably know, every game of Clue begins with the revelation of a murder. The object of the game is to be the first person to deduce who did it, with what weapon, and where. To achieve that end, each player assumes the role of one of the suspects and moves strategically around the board collecting clues.

With its emphasis on logic and critical thinking—in addition to some old-fashioned luck—Clue is a masterpiece that has stood the test of time and evolved with each decade, with special versions of the game hitting shelves recently based on The Office, Rick and Morty, and Star Wars.

Clue Vintage Bookshelf Edition

'Clue' Vintage Library Edition.
WS Game Company

The Vintage Bookshelf Edition of Clue is the work of the WS Game Company, a licensee of Hasbro, and all the design elements are inspired by the aesthetic of the 1949 original. The game features a vintage-looking game board, cards, wood movers, die-cast weapons, six pencils, an ivory-colored die, an envelope, and a pad of “detective notes.” And, of course, everything folds up and stores inside a beautiful cloth-bound book box that you can store right on the shelf in your living room.

Clue Vintage Bookshelf Edition is a limited-release item, and right now you can get it for $40.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

8 Facts About the Stonewall Riots

Monica Schipper, Getty Images for Airbnb
Monica Schipper, Getty Images for Airbnb

A pivotal moment in civil rights took place the week of June 28, 1969. That day, police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in New York City's Greenwich Village. The move was a clear condemnation by law enforcement officials of the city's gay population. The volatile riots that followed sparked a new sense of urgency about demanding tolerance for persecuted communities.

1. The Stonewall Inn was operated by an organized crime organization.

In the 1960s, homosexuality was under fire from all directions. Because it was perceived as being amoral, individuals caught engaging in so-called "lewd behavior" were arrested and their names and home addresses were published in their local newspapers. Homosexual activity was considered illegal in most states.

As a result, being part of the LGBTQ community in New York was never without its share of harassment. Several laws were on the books that prohibited same-sex public displays of affection; a criminal statute banned people from wearing less than three “gender appropriate” articles of clothing. Commiserating at gay-friendly bars was also problematic, because officials often withheld liquor licenses from such establishments.

This kind of persecution led to members of the mafia purchasing and operating gay-friendly clubs. It was not an altruistic endeavor: The mob believed that catering to an underserved clientele by bribing city officials would be profitable, and it was. The Genovese crime family owned the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, which became known for welcoming drag queens and giving homeless teenagers and young adults a place to gather. Often, these places got tipped off before a raid took place so they could hide any liquor. But the June 28 raid at the Stonewall Inn was different: No one was tipped off.

2. Police had to lock themselves inside the Stonewall Inn to barricade themselves from the crowd.

During the June 28 raid, police (who were alleged to have targeted Stonewall for its lack of a liquor license and the owners' possible blackmail attempts on gay attendees) confiscated alcohol and arrested 13 people in total, some for violating the statute on inappropriate gender apparel. After some patrons and local residents witnessed an officer striking a prisoner on the head, they began lashing out with anything within arm’s reach—including bottles, stones, and loose change. A number of people even pulled a parking meter from the ground and tried to use it as a battering ram.

The police, fearing for their safety, locked themselves inside the Stonewall Inn as the angry mob outside grew into the thousands. Some were attempting to set the property on fire. Reinforcements were eventually able to get the crowd under control—for one night, at least.

3. The situation got worse on the second night of the Stonewall riots.

After getting the crowd to disperse, police likely thought the worst of their problems was over. But on the second night, the Stonewall Inn reopened and another mob formed to meet the police response. Both sides were more aggressive on the second night of the Stonewall Uprising, with residents and customers forming a mob of protestors and police using violent force to try and subdue them.

“There was more anger and more fight the second night,” eyewitness and participant Danny Garvin told PBS’s American Experience. “There was no going back now, there was no going back … we had discovered a power that we weren’t even aware that we had.”

4. Protestors set their sights on The Village Voice.

Tempers flared again days later when The Village Voice published two articles using homophobic slurs to describe the scene at the Stonewall Inn. Angry about the demeaning coverage, protestors once again took to the streets, with some descending on the offices of the Voice, which were located just down the street from the Stonewall.

5. Not all of the protests were violent.

During the demonstrations—which some observers later referred to as an “uprising”—some protestors opted for a nonviolent approach in order to be heard. Eyewitnesses reported residents forming Rockettes-style kick lines that performed in front of stern-faced policemen. Others sang or participated in chants like “Liberate the bar!”

6. The Stonewall Riots led to New York’s first gay rights march.

Once the riots had subsided, protestors were filled with motivation to organize for their rights. A year after the riots, residents began marching on Christopher Street and Sixth Avenue. The date, June 28, was dubbed Christopher Street Liberation Day. Thousands of people marched the streets while thousands of other people lined up alongside them to protest the treatment of the LGBTQ community at the hands of law enforcement officials and society at large.

Some members of a New York Police Department who had confronted protestors during the Stonewall Riots one year before were now being ordered to protect those same protestors during the walk. Other marches took place in other cities, marking the country's first widespread demonstration for gay rights.

7. The Stonewall Inn is now a national monument.

Since the events of 1969, the Stonewall Inn has been considered an important and historic venue for the new era of gay rights. On June 24, 2016, President Barack Obama made that official when he designated the Stonewall Inn and the surrounding area a National Historic Landmark under the care of the National Park Service. Many credit the Stonewall Uprising with the subsequent surge in gay rights groups. One participant, Marsha P. Johnson, started Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) the following year, an organization devoted to helping homeless LGBTQ youth.

8. The Stonewall Inn is still standing.

Following the riots, the Stonewall’s patrons were still faced with police harassment and were growing uncomfortable with the mob affiliation. Months after the event, the Stonewall became a juice bar before subsequent owners tried operating it as a bagel shop, a Chinese restaurant, and a shoe store in the 1970s and 1980s. New owners renovated the building in 2007.

Today, the Stonewall is once again operating as a bar and club at 53 Christopher Street in Manhattan. Naturally, everyone is welcome.

Note: An earlier version of this article misidentified Marsha P. Johnson's organization as Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries. The correct name is Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.