The Bert Messervey Story


John Herbert Messervey at age 20, in his baseball
uniform. Picture taken in 1907.

Up until recently, I was able to discover precious little information about the few lighting outfits in my collection that were manufactured under the Messervey brand name. Then, on Christmas Eve, 2002, I was contacted by Ken and Dennis Benson. John Herbert Messervey, owner and operator of Messervey Industries, was their mother's uncle! Family historian Ken has kindly agreed to provide me with as much information as possible. His efforts, combined with my own research information, now make it possible to present this interesting history of another early pioneer in the American and Canadian Christmas lighting industry.



John Herbert "Burt" Messervey was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1887. In his early years, his activities included playing 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 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:
1920 Imari plate 1930 paper fan 1923 imported parasol and close up of handle

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.

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

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".

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's branded outfits I have seen has 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.

Outside and inside views of a typical set of
Messervey Industries figural lights, circa 1923.
Also shown is a close-up of the clear glass
frog light with the Buffalo trademark.

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.






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