Edward Johnson, one of Edison's partners and VP of the Edison Electric Light Company had the first Christmas tree illuminated with electric lights in his home in Dec. 1882. I'm sure house fires were dramatically reduced when the candles placed on trees went away and were replaced by electric strings of light!!
Rockefeller Center in New York City lit its 76th Christmas tree on Dec. 3 this year. (Photo: Jason DeCrow/AP)
1882: An inventive New Yorker finds a brilliant application for electric lights and becomes the first person to use them as Christmas tree decorations.
Edward H. Johnson, who toiled for Thomas Edison’s Illumination Company and later became a company vice president, used 80 small red, white and blue electric bulbs, strung together along a single power cord, to light the Christmas tree in his New York home. Some sources credit Edison himself with being the first to use electric lights as Christmas decorations, when he strung them around his laboratory in 1880.
The idea of replacing the Christmas tree’s traditional wax candles — which had been around since the mid-17th century — with electric lights didn’t, umm, catch fire right away. Although the stringed lights enjoyed a vogue with the wealthy and were being mass-produced as early as 1890, they didn’t become popular in humbler homes until a couple of decades into the 20th century.
A general distrust of using electricity for indoor lighting, still widespread in the late 19th century, kept the popularity of Christmas lights low. They were most commonly seen ringing the seasonal display windows of big-city department stores.
In 1895, President Grover Cleveland (a New York stater himself) supposedly ordered the family’s White House tree festooned with multicolored electric lights. If he did, it barely moved the needle on the popularity scale. Even so, General Electric began selling Christmas-light kits in 1903.
Another New Yorker is generally credited with popularizing indoor electric Christmas lights. According to the story, Albert Sadacca, whose family sold ornamental novelties, became a believer in 1917 after reading the account of a bad fire caused by a candlelit tree bursting into flames.
Whether or not that’s the reason, Sadacca began selling colored Christmas lights through the family business. By then, the public’s distrust of electricity had diminished. So the timing was right, and sales took off.
With his brothers, Sadacca later started a company devoted solely to the manufacture of electric Christmas lights. He succeeded in roping a few competitors into a trade association, which proceeded to dominate the Christmas-light industry into the 1960s.
Interesting story. It's funny to think xmas lights took so long to be favored over candles, when as Bill says, the alternative must have been the cause of so many house fires. I guess then as today, it took a while for "new technology" to prove itself to the general public. I once had an opportunity to buy a string of xmas lights from the 30's, and have kicked myself since for leaving them. The bulbs were all shaped like santa's & snow flakes & stuff- absolutely beautiful by todays standards. I later picked up a heap of antique tree decorations, so the lights would have looked perfect with them.
The first electrified tree in Edward H. Johnson's home, Dec.1882.
It's funny when you look at trees like this from the past. Because of the sparsity of branches, these trees are now dubbed "Charlie Brown" Christmas trees but I remember as a kid growing up in the 50s and 60s all trees basically looked like this. I think it was the advent of tree farms and cultivation methods that give us the "fuller" look of today. As Shane mentions, tree lights from the past were much more ornamental than today's little mini lights. The bulbs were bigger and I remember us having these glass tubes full of a translucent colored liquid that when heated up would bubble. We also had bulbs that were Santas ( and even a snowman or two) that he mentions. A year or so ago I saw a string of these older bulbs in an antique shop in the original box and was horrified by the price! Unfortunately, the lights are long gone but I have kept the glass ornaments from my parents and grandparents and these were all made in Germany before the war. today's average glass ornaments don't come close to the craftsmanship of the earlier examples.