LIGHTING OUTFITS: 1900-1920
Home electric lighting of Christmas trees was not truly practical until 1903, when General Electric first offered pre-wired lighting outfits, complete with miniature Edison lamps, for sale to the general public. Prior to that, consumers had to hand wire socket-less light bulbs onto the tree themselves, a tedious task at best. Here is a picture of one of the earliest Christmas light bulbs known and an 1899 catalog illustration of the same type of lamp:
In the early 1900s, electricity was still a bit of a novelty, and the sight of a glowing electric tree was a wondrous one indeed. But the cost was quite prohibitive, and the general population was more than content to stay with their time honored candles for holiday cheer. Those who were not wealthy and still wanted the novelty of an electric tree were sometimes able to rent an outfit from the local department store. Below is a set designed solely for rental purposes. It is packed in a very sturdy oak box, and is nicely finished so as to attract attention when placed in a store window. This outfit contains eight lamps plus a spare, and was suitable for a table top tree:
As the idea of electric tree lighting slowly became more accepted by a skeptical public, other companies began offering complete lighting sets as well. General Electric immediately tried to patent their festoon sets, but were unable to as the courts decided that the design and concept was based on ordinary electrical skills and was therefore not patentable. Soon many small companies were offering lighting sets of their own. Please refer to the Manufacturer's Histories section of this site for further details about many of the early manufacturers of electric Christmas lighting.
All of the outfits presented in this category use a screw-in connector like the one shown in the figure above on the left. Early homes were wired for ceiling or wall lighting only, and the only way to tap into the electric power circuit was through a light fixture. The wall outlet shown above right was a convenience rarely found, and even with the cover flap was somewhat dangerous-especially for those with children. (It was salvaged from a circa 1905 mansion in Knoxville, Tennessee).
An advertisement from a Sears catalog showing a typical lighting connection.
A- This outfit is the earliest in my collection, and is quite rare. Circa 1905, it was manufactured by General Electric. Normal outfits of this era use 15 volt lamps and are series wired, meaning that if one lamp goes out, they all go out. This set is parallel wired, so the failure of a single lamp will not affect the operation of the others. Using candelabra based 110 volt lamps, the light string employs white porcelain sockets and copper wire with a green silk braided covering. The power connector is a typical screw-in plug.
B- Here is a close-up picture of the lamp compartment. Two spare lamps are included with the outfit, and all of the bulbs are protected in the divided area with a hinged lid. The lid has detailed instructions for proper operation.
C- This is a close up-picture of one of the lamps in the set. The color is applied to the glass envelope with a very delicate water soluble paint, which damages easily. One of the disadvantages of early lamps of this type was that they burned at an alarmingly high temperature-high enough in fact to cause a serious burn. 120 volt lamps with a carbon filament were actually not suitable for Christmas decorating, and this is one of the reasons for the rarity of this type of set. Series wired sets with 15 volt bulbs burned much cooler, and were by far the most popular selling outfits until after World War II.
A- Another outfit by General Electric, circa 1910. Also a multiple wired set, the outfit contains two festoon of seven lights each. It appears that the wooden box was purchased as overstock from another company, as the dimensions did not properly fit GE's pre-made cardboard dividers for the lamp compartments. By holding the box lid at an angle to the light, there seem to be indentations indicating an embossed name under the paper label.
B- A look inside the box, showing the double festoon and the lamp compartment. The top layer of the compartment removes, revealing more lamps.
C- A close up of the sockets and one of the looped carbon filament colored glass lamps.
D- A close up of the lid of the box. Typically, these outfits have labels on the ends and sides of the box, but this example has none, and there are no indications that any were ever present.
A- This 1914 outfit from National Ever Ready is actually a window display, intended to entice shoppers into the store to ask about the wondrous new electric tree lighting systems. It is a working 16 lamp outfit with the usual Edison style miniature base carbon filament lamps. The more typical retail version of an Ever Ready outfit is depicted in figure "C" below.
B- Here is an inside view of the box, showing the ceramic sockets and the lamps protected from harm within a separate section. There are two layers of eight lamps, all in assorted colors. The instructions on the inside of the lid indicate that the lamps are two candlepower, an early brightness rating system in use before tungsten filaments brought about the more accurate watt rating system.
A- An Ever Ready outfit, circa 1918. This outfit demonstrates a very early use of miniature base flame lamps from Japan, with much larger glass envelopes than the later bulbs. These lamps have carbon filaments.
B- This is a box of imported Japanese carbon filament replacement bulbs. Boxes like this contained "balanced" lamps, all of relatively even brightness. One of the disadvantages of carbon filaments is that the light output of individual units is very difficult to control. Factories therefore offered lamps in matched sets so all of the lamps on a string would burn with similar intensity. Circa 1918.
C- Manufactured by Ever Ready, this is a very typical outfit by that company. Circa 1915, this example is an 8 light set- the company offered outfits in 16, 24 and 32 lamps as well. Included with the kit are spring clips, that when inserted into small holes in the socket bases allow the lights to be attached to tree branches. The top picture is of the end label on the box.
Note: This is an archive of the late Bill Nelson's "Antique Christmas Light" web site as it existed in 2001. Except for contact information, link updates, and some information that has been lost, we have attempted to keep the text and illustrations as Bill presented them. However, the original pages included much outdated HTML code and graphic conventions, so we have done a lot of work "behind the scenes" to bring you this archive. Consequently:
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