Bert Messervey


For several years, Bill Nelson was able to discover little information about the few lighting outfits in his collection that were sold under the Messervey brand name. Then, on Christmas Eve, 2002, he was contacted by Ken and Dennis Benson. John Herbert Messervey, owner and operator of Messervey Industries, was their mother's uncle! Family historian Ken kindly agreed to provide Bill with as much information as possible. His efforts, combined with Bill's information, made it possible to present this interesting history of another early pioneer in the American and Canadian Christmas lighting industry. The rest of this page is in Bill's words.

John Herbert "Burt" Messervey was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1887. In his early years, he played semi-professional baseball in the United States. As an adult, his business was importing, and his company, Messervey Industries, offered a wide variety of gift type items collected from the around the world. Among his offerings were fans, pottery and parasols from the Orient, and silverware from Persia (now Iran). He was quite prosperous, and knew both how to purchase in a cost effective manner and market his wares effectively. He was described by his niece as "tall, over six feet, and he had been quite an athletic ballplayer when he was a teen. He came to visit us in the 1920s when we lived in Toronto, and he lived in Buffalo, New York. My father always talked about him like he was a hero. Uncle Burt was very lively." It seems that Bert easily earned respect from both friends and family, in part due to his imposing physical stature, but more due to his friendly and outgoing personality. He was well liked, and quite prosperous. Below are a few pictures of the types of goods that Bert Messervey imported in the late teens and early 1920s:


Examples of 1920s Japanese Imports


Bert on a buying trip in Japan, 1922               

              By 1918, Bert had offices in both Buffalo, New York and Bridgeburg, Ontario. He ran his importing business out of Buffalo, and his Christmas lighting concern out of an old church building in Bridgeburg. He lived in Buffalo with his wife, Lillian Oakes Messervey. While he was born in Canada, it is unknown in which country he claimed citizenship, as over the years he addresses in both countries.

In the early days of Christmas lighting, the major decorative lighting companies such as Propp, the Triangle Electro Trading Company and others traditionally manufactured the lighting festoons themselves. The companies mainly purchased their lamps from General Electric, while a smaller number purchased from Westinghouse. It was extremely uncommon for lighting outfits offered in the 1920s to have lamps other than those from these two major companies, or, in the late 20s, from Japan as well. Bert Messervey's Christmas lighting sets, however, were a bit different in that his outfits contained lamps made in Japan but marked with his company's trademark name of "Buffalo".

Outside of typical Messervey's
Christmas lighting outfit,
circa 1922
An inside view of the set,
showing the tungsten filament
pine cone shaped lamps

Bert offered two different filament types; carbon and tungsten. While the tungsten lamps were superior electrically, they were more expensive to make and appealed to the more affluent of his customers. The carbon lamps were less costly while still being quite functional, and Bert sold both types of lamps in order to appeal to as many customers as possible. His efforts were quite successful, and the collector today can find examples of many of the lamps that Bert Messervey sold.

Bert most likely purchased most of his lighting strings from the Morris Propp Company of New York, as the vast majority of Messervey branded outfits I have seen have the distinctive Propp cloth covering of green cotton with interwoven red "polka dots", and the easily recognized green composition sockets with the smooth, rounded shape. The Messervey lamps contained in the sets are all marked "Buffalo", which, as mentioned before, was a trademark of Messervey Industries and not an indication of the place of manufacture.

Bert's Buffalo brand of figural lamps appear to be almost identical to those sold at the same time by other companies using lamps made in Japan. Since Bert's major business was importing, he had the buying power to offer his Buffalo trademarked lamps in different color combinations than what competing companies offered. While Messervey carbon lamps used 100% Japanese technology, his tungsten filament lamps used technology patented by General Electric. Illustrating this is the fact that one of the Messervey tungsten filament lighting outfits in my collection has the following statement, printed in small letters on the inner flap of the box: "The Buffalo lamps contained in this set are sold under a license extended to us by the Canadian General Electric Company, Limited." This license refers to base, filament support and filament components only, and not the glass shells. Since GE was the industry leader in the manufacture of all light bulbs at the time, they were also the patent holder for many of the procedures and components necessary to manufacture effective light bulbs. Even Westinghouse, the second largest maker of light bulbs, had to license many patent rights from GE's holdings.

This 1922 figural light set from Messervey Industries has lamps with the brass collars stamped "Buffalo".

The lamps sold by Messervey Industries were all of the figural variety, and included popular shapes of the time such as clowns, Santa Claus, snowmen and various fruits. Most of these figural shapes had the less expensive carbon filaments in them, but the glass envelopes had quality paint jobs in bright colors. Burt's tungsten filament offerings were painted and colored glass seed pod or pine cone shaped lamps, which burned more evenly from light to light and a bit brighter than did the carbons.

Most likely in an effort to save on production costs, the boxes that Bert sold his lighting outfits in were a bit on the plain side when compared to the very brightly colored examples from his competitors.

I have seen only two different varieties of Messervey boxes. As pictured below, one has a Christmassy indoor scene and the other an outdoor view:


The boxes were printed by an independent jobber, and not in the Messervey factories. After the Messervey company went out of business, other decorative lighting companies employed the same artwork on their boxes, which was a common practice in the industry. It is because of this fact that it is unwise to assume a specific manufacturer of a lighting outfit based solely on the box art and graphics.


Bert manufactured Christmas lights at his factory in Ontario from about 1922 until March 20, 1931. That Friday, Bert tragically lost his life in a fire at his Bridgeburg factory. According to his obituary, Bert was working at 9:30 PM when an explosion caused by spontaneous combustion started a fire. As he attempted to put the fire out, his clothing ignited, severely burning his face, hands and body.

He was able to extinguish his clothing, and drove himself to Millard Fillmore hospital across the American border in Buffalo. Canadian Customs Officials, horrified by Bert's condition, called their American counterparts on the other side of the bridge to wave Bert through as he passed. When he arrived at the hospital, he collapsed, and passed away shortly thereafter. Although the obituary states that Burt was 40, his actual age at the time of his death was 43.

It was truly a sad ending for a man so well respected and loved by his family and the communities in which he worked. Bert had employed many family members in his businesses, and after his death, Messervey Industries was no more, as the family made the decision not to rebuild and carry on the business.

Many of the details of Bert and his life have now faded into history. Bridgeburg, the little town in Ontario across the river from Buffalo, New York, was renamed Fort Erie in 1932. It is interesting to note that along with some of Canada's earliest electric Christmas lights, Bridgeburg was also host to the first Canadian Jell-O factory.

I would like to personally thank Ken and Dennis Benson for their help with this section of the site. It is through kind efforts like theirs that this website continues to grow, and is able to present interesting pieces of early electric Christmas lighting history.


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