Early in their history, Christmas lights were so expensive that they were more commonly rented than sold. An electrically lighted tree was a status symbol in the early 1900s.
Electrically lit trees did not become "universal" in the United States until after World War II.
Many of the earliest Christmas lights burned so hot that they were about as dangerous as the candles they were advertised to replace.
True outdoor Christmas lights were not introduced to the public until 1927- almost 45 years after the first electric tree lights were demonstrated. There were sets offered for sale as safe to use outside before 1927, but they were small, dangerous and extremely impractical for the average family.
It is interesting to note that while Christmas is a uniquely Christian holiday, most of the major Christmas lighting companies were owned and operated by people of the Jewish faith.
Many of the earliest figural light
bulbs representing fruit, flowers and holiday figures were blown in
molds that were also used to make small glass ornaments. These figural
lights were painted by toy makers. Below is a picture of a frog
ornament and a frog light bulb, both blown from an identical mold:
General Electric was the first company to offer pre-wired Christmas light strings. Prior to this, lights had to be hand wired on the tree. GE was unable to patent their string (or festoon), and suddenly the market was open to anyone who wanted to manufacture the strings.
It was a common but incorrect belief in the early days of electric Christmas lighting that Christmas light bulbs would burn longer in an upright position. Early decorators spent a lot of time making sure that the lamps were positioned upright on the tree.
In 1927, General Electric first used the large, intermediate size base for their new outdoor Christmas light bulbs. The outfits that were sold consisted of 7 lamps, and were wired in parallel so that the failure of a single lamp would not affect the rest. The earliest of these lights are round, but by 1928 they were the familiar swirled or flame shape. Also, the early lamps were painted on the outside, but later issues feature a scratchproof inside color. These lamps are still made today, although they are once again smooth rather than textured, and the color is again on the outside. It is interesting to note that General Electric and the various Edison Electric distribution companies sponsored many neighborhood "decorating with color-light" contests in an effort to induce sales of the new outfits. Their strategy worked quite well, as within several years communities all over the United States held friendly decorating competitions at Christmastime.
Most figural Christmas lights were made out of milk glass for a specific reason. The paint used on the lights did not adhere well to glass, and as the lights were turned on and off, the constant expansion and contraction of the glass helped the paint to flake off even faster. It was discovered that milk glass looks better than clear glass when the lights have flaking paint, so the industry quickly and almost exclusively switched over to the use of the white milk glass by the late 1920s.
The bell shaped lights offered by General Electric in 1932 were actually first designed to be used in a model train station manufactured by the Lionel Company, and burned with the base down. They were made to imitate the shape of streetlights of the day, and when it was discovered that they also resembled Christmas bells when painted in colors other than white or beige and hung upside down, GE started offering them as Christmas lights. They remained popular until the advent of World War II.
The miniature lights that we are so familiar with today are wired in exactly the same way as our grandparent's lights were-in series! This means that if one goes out, they all should go out. What is different about today's lights is the fact that each little bulb has a shunt device in it, that prevents the string from going dark due to the failure of one or more lamps. This shunt device can only work if the lamp stays in its socket. Removal of a lamp will still cause the string to go dark...
Montgomery Wards inadvertently gave the American public two well known Christmas treasures: the bubble light and Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer. The original story of Rudolph, a bit different than the one we know today, first appeared in a children's giveaway booklet in 1939. The character became a runaway hit. Also, Carl Otis, the inventor of the bubble light, worked as an accountant for the company. Wards did not sponsor Carl's invention, and he eventually sold it to NOMA. It became the biggest selling Christmas light in history up to that time.
Note: OldChristmasTreeLights? and FamilyChristmasOnline? are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications? (www.btcomm.com).
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