Nowadays just the thought of putting candles on a Christmas tree would almost be enough to set off the smoke alarms, but that wasn’t always the case. In 1832, Harvard professor Charles Follen brought the Christmas tree tradition to the U.S. when he decorated a fir with candles for a party at his Cambridge home. The German native recreated his homeland’s tradition and kept a sponge nearby in case of accidents. Indeed, one of the decorative dolls did get a bit singed, according to the Harvard University Gazette. The effect may have been beautiful, but candles and trees are too much of a hazard (and a hassle) to be a viable option. Christmas lights needed to go electric.
Fast forward to 1880, when the Christmas tree craze was in full swing, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s suggestion that German-born Prince Albert decorate a tree in 1848. Thomas Edison wired up a half-mile of Menlo Park with his recent invention, incandescent lamps. Train passengers between New York and Philadelphia were treated to what one journalist called “a fairy-land of lights,” according to American Heritage. Two years later, the vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, Edward Johnson, put a tree strung with 80 blinking blue, white, and red lights on top of a pine box that turned the tree six times a minute. “The result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white, blue, white, red, blue — all evening,” wrote a reporter for the Detroit Post and Tribune. “One can hardly imagine anything prettier.”
Johnson’s walnut-sized, hand-wired lights weren’t cheap, and neither were their successors, but they’d been gaining in popularity since Grover Cleveland brought an electrically lighted tree into the White House. A 16-foot strand of lights could cost around $12, too expensive for the average household in 1900, and General Electric accordingly offered to rent them to homeowners. The price dropped to under $2 by 1914, Brian Murray writes in “Christmas Lights and Community Building in America.” General Electric tried and failed to get a patent for its pre-wired sockets, or festoons, according to Old Christmas Tree Lights, and so the company suddenly had competition, helping drive down the price. By 1920, outdoor tree-lighting displays were born. The American Eveready Company was also selling pre-wired sets as early as 1903.
Supposedly, Albert Sadacca was just a teen when a Christmas tree lit with candles burned down a house in his neighborhood. He and his brother’s Noma Electric Company, founded in 1925, became the largest manufacturer of Christmas lights over the next 40 years. During the same decade, companies filed patents for blinking lights, and nearly 20 years later came the Noma bubble light, which was filled with liquid that had a low boiling point, causing bubbles to form as the light warmed up.
Since they were first introduced, Christmas lights have gotten smaller, safer, and cheaper. Now as the trend moves to more efficient LEDs, you can get lights in the shape of bulbs, icicles, or ropes. You can even use smart lights — making it all the easier to sync your colorful displays to festive holiday music.