When do you think putting electric lights on Christmas trees first occurred?
Would you figure it was in the US in the 1940s during the nation’s post-war boom? Or would you hazard a guess that it was earlier? Say the 1910s during the Second Industrial Revolution and Henry Ford’s assembly line process?
These would be fine guesses, but you would have to go back earlier. To 1882.
A dynamic duo.
The famous, brilliant, home-schooled inventor Thomas Edison was born in Ohio and made his way to New York City when he was in his early twenties. Married with three kids, he and his wife lived in Menlo Park, New Jersey. During the winter of 1880, Thomas Edison strung up electric lights for a holiday party, but he was not the first to wrap them around a tree. 1
That honor would go to Edward Hibberd Johnson.
Most of us have probably not heard of this inventor from Pennsylvania. Born in 1846, Edward H. Johnson grew up in Philadelphia, went to public school, and became a telegraph operator. In 1871, as the young manager for Automatic Telegraph Company in New York, Johnson hired Thomas Edison who was twenty-four-years old at the time. In a widely shared anecdote, Johnson noted that Edison “ate at this desk and slept in a chair. In six weeks he had gone through the books, written a volume of abstracts, and made two thousand experiments.” 2, 3
Johnson, just barely Edison’s senior, was impressed by his colleague’s work ethic, and this fortuitous hire would be the beginning of a long working relationship between the two bright minds. In Menlo Park, New Jersey, Edison built his famous laboratory, and Johnson came on board as an executive. He would become instrumental in Edison’s business dealings and inventions.
In 1882, Johnson and his family lived in a townhouse on East 36th Street in New York City. Johnson is described adeptly by a writer for the Smithsonian as a mustachioed gentleman, and “this loyal lieutenant to Thomas Edison was the embodiment of his era: part engineer, part businessman, part Barnum.” 3 Johnson certainly looked the intriguing part for one to father an intriguing creation.
During the Christmas season in the winter of 1882, Johnson had a creative idea—one that would change the holiday forever. No one puts it better than newspaper reporter William Augustus Croffut who witnessed the brilliance firsthand:
“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 and blue, all evening.” 4
And a tradition was born. Well, sort of.
At first, it was just for the wealthy few.
Johnson’s Christmas tree celebrated the holiday spirit in an incredibly new and visual way, and it was much safer than burning candles on dry fir trees! Yet, lights were expensive. In addition to the costs of the bulbs, one had to hire an electrician for installation. This precluded most Americans from being able to purchase Christmas tree lights at the holidays. 5
As well, there was also a common feeling of mistrust in electricity at the time, which didn’t help matters.
So early on, Christmas tree lights were only available to the wealthy. For instance, in 1900 one had to pay out $12 for a string of 16 bulbs, which would be approximately 350 bucks today.
By the 1930s, it became the democratic affair it is today.
As legend has it (one befitting the great American entrepreneurial spirit), a savvy teenager, Albert Sadacca, heard about a dreadful fire in New York City in 1917. The fire’s origin was from lit candles on a Christmas tree. Albert’s family owned and ran a novelty lighting company in the city, and they decided to try their hand at manufacturing lights at lower prices for Christmas trees. It took time. Eventually other companies joined in, like General Electric, and fast forward to the 1930s, and most Americans could affordably (and usually safely) string electric Christmas lights on their trees during the holiday season. 6, 7
With many thanks to Edward Hibbert Johnson, the Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights, Americans purchase 150 million sets of Christmas lights each year. 8
If you celebrate Christmas, then you’ll want to get out there early to get your lights; given some shortages, lights may sell out by mid-December. And be aware, they may be a bit pricier this year.
Happy Holidays from all of us at Real Wood Floors!
1 Brownfield, Troy. “A Truly Bright Idea: Creating the Electric Christmas Tree Light.” Saturday Evening Post. 13 Dec. 2018.
2 “Edward Hibberd Johnson.” Engineering and Technology History Wiki. https://ethw.org/Edward_Hibberd_Johnson
3 Malanowski, Jamie. “Untangling the History of Christmas Lights.”
4 “The First Electric Christmas Tree Lights.” Today in Science History.
5 “History of Electric Christmas Tree Lights.” Thoughtco.com.
6 “Who Invented Electric Christmas Lights?” Library of Congress.
7 “History of Electric Christmas Tree Lights.” Thoughtco.com.
8 Harrington, John and Buckingham, Cheyenne. “Neighborhoods with the Most Outrageous Christmas Lights in Every State.” USA Today. 8 Dec. 2017. https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/budget-and-spending/2017/12/08/neighborhoods-most-outrageous-christmas-lights-every-state/927130001/