This archive of Bill Nelson's 2001 web site was provided by Fred Fox and is sponsored by:
A BRIEF HISTORY
The world's first practical light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison in 1879, (CLICK HERE to see the patent) and it was to be only three years later that an associate of his, one Edward Johnson, electrically lit a Christmas tree for the first time. The tree was located in the Parlor of his New York home, located in the first section of that city to be wired for electricity. The tree created quite a stir, and was dutifully recorded by a reporter named Croffut in the Detroit Post and Tribune:
Since public distribution of electricity was not yet common, those living outside of a major city who desired one of these wonderful trees had to supply their own electric power, typically from household generators. In addition, the services of a "wireman" had to be obtained, as few people were willing to undertake the job of hand wiring all of the lights on the tree themselves. Electric socket outfits had not been invented, and it was a tedious task at best to wire all of the lights necessary to illuminate a room sized tree. Although intrigued, the public was not yet convinced of the practicality of electric trees.
In 1895, President Cleveland proudly sponsored the first electrically lit Christmas tree in the White House. It was a huge specimen, featuring more than a hundred multicolored lights. Finally, the general public was taking notice, and it was not long afterward that members of "high society" were hosting Christmas Tree parties. They were grand events indeed, as a typical lighted tree of the early 1900s cost upwards of $300 (more than $2000 today), including the generator and wireman's services. Still out of range for the average American family, smaller and less expensive battery-operated lighting strings were decorating the trees of those adventurous enough to do the wiring. In fact, an article in Popular Electricity Magazine had an piece for children, explaining how to light the family tree with battery-powered electric lights. The back pages had instructions on ordering the necessary wire, sockets and lights bulbs. General Electric even offered miniature light bulbs for rent in some cities, as an alternative to an outright purchase of the expensive lamps. But electric tree lighting was not to be truly practical until the General Electric Company came to the rescue in 1903. That year, GE offered a pre-assembled lighting outfit for the first time. Still quite expensive at $12.00 (the total weekly wage for an average worker and the equivalent of about $80.00 today), many department stores in the larger, electrified cities would rent outfits for the season for $4.00. Called a "festoon", the outfit consisted of eight green pre-wired porcelain sockets, eight Edison miniature base colored glass lamps, and a handy screw-in plug for easy attachment to a nearby wall or ceiling light socket. The set was suitable for a table-top size tree:
Below is a transcription of the contents of a colorful booklet put out by General Electric in 1903:
The advertisement pictured on the left was sponsored by GE, and was published in a December, 1905 edition of Scientific American Magazine, extolling the virtues of electric lights for the Christmas tree. Pictured on the right is a circa 1910 tree outfit by the American Ever Ready Company, the second company after GE to offer lighting outfits, and later to become known for Eveready batteries. (See the 1900-1920 section of The Light Sets category for more pictures of some of the earliest lighting outfits.)
The General Electric Company was not able to patent their lighting outfits, as when the company's patent applications were presented to the United States Patent and Trademark Office for consideration, their courts decided that the socket sets were "based on common electrical knowledge" and not actually a new invention. It was not long after the decision was handed down that several companies began offering lighting sets of their own, and the American electric Christmas lighting industry was born.
End of Category
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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