Brightening the Holidays: The Invention of Christmas Lights

Johnson Christmas Tree

It has always been tradition to light up the Christmas tree with some kind of lights. Despite the danger of fire, candles had been used to light up the Christmas tree. In 1882, Edward Johnson demonstrated a new way to light up the tree. Johnson created the first string of electric Christmas lights. He hand wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and strung them on his tree in New York City.
The event was reported by a visiting journalist from the Detroit Post and Tribune.

“Last evening I walked over beyond Fifth Avenue and called at the residence of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison’s electric company. There, at the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect. It was brilliantly lighted with many colored globes about as large as an English walnut and was turning some six times a minute on a little pine box. There were eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue. As the tree turned, the colors alternated, all the lamps going out and being relit at every revolution. The result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white, blue, white, red, blue—all evening.
I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight—one can hardly imagine anything prettier. The ceiling was crossed obliquely with two wires on which hung 28 more of the tiny lights; and all the lights and the fantastic tree itself with its starry fruit were kept going by the slight electric current brought from the main office on a filmy wire. The tree was kept revolving by a little hidden crank below the floor which was turned by electricity.  It was a superb exhibition.”

Because of the a lack of public distribution and general mistrust of electricity it would take years for the idea of electrical Christmas lights to become popular. President Cleveland helped with the acceptance of electric lights. In 1895, the Christmas tree in the White House was electrically lit with more than a hundred multicolored lights.

In 1903, GE introduced first sets of pre-wired sockets, then called festoons.The General Electric Company tried to patent the idea of a Christmas lighting festoon, but the patent was refused. The courts decided that the idea was actually based on knowledge that “any ordinary wireman” possessed, and therefore not patentable.

The cost of General Electric’s first offering of Christmas lights was $12.00 for a set of 24 lights, enough to light a medium sized table-top tree. This was considered extremely expensive in 1903, as the average wage for the time was a mere 22¢ per hour, which equaled a weekly paycheck of about $13.20.

GE Christmas Lights