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Let there be Christmas light

Photo: Alfred Schalausky Family with lighted Christmas tree, 1932. Note the lights are plugged into the overhead socket.

Photo: Alfred Schalausky Family with lighted Christmas tree, 1932. Note the lights are plugged into the overhead socket.

By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —

Decorations for Christmas are up at the Sophienburg Museum and Archives. This year we are highlighting 20th century Christmas décor of the 1920s–1960s. You will be wonderfully transported back to your childhood. We also discovered several large boxes with Christmas lights which led me to look into the history of Christmas tree lights.

Candles were the first lights used on Christmas trees. Using tiny Christmas lanterns in the 1870s, counterweighted holders in the 1890s and clip-on holders after 1900, people would light their trees with candles for a brief moment of wonder. Live flames and dry fir or cedar was a dangerous combination, so a bucket of sand or water was kept nearby for expected emergencies. A heavy rug was placed under the tree to catch dripping wax; the rug morphed into the modern-day Christmas tree skirt.

Thomas Edison invented the first practical light bulb in 1879. In 1882, his associate Edward Johnson used that technology to electrically light the Christmas tree in his home. It created quite a stir since the tree also used electricity to rotate and blink on and off.

An electrically lighted Christmas tree was displayed in the White House in 1895. This brilliant exhibit fueled the public’s growing fascination with electrically lighted trees. In response, the General Electric Co. (GE) offered, for the first time, sets of pre-wired carbon filament lights for Christmas trees in 1903. At a time when the average wage was 22 cents a day, a $12 box of 24 pre-wired lights was very pricey. In 1906, Germany and Austria introduced electric figural Christmas lights to the increasingly interested American consumer.

GE launched new Christmas light outfits using the Mazda bulb in 1916. The Mazda was a globe-shaped bulb with a tungsten filament. Other manufacturers of stringed lights paid to use GE’s new Mazda bulbs in their sets. GE replaced the globe-shaped bulb with a flame-shape or cone-shape light bulb in 1919 and it, then, became the industry standard up into the 1960s. By the 1920s, all American lighting manufacturers had converted to tungsten filament bulbs.

The Tri-Plug was invented in 1921 by Lester Haft and allowed several strings of lights to be connected; this was a game changer for the industry. The many companies jumping into the lighting game compelled the Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL) to publish quality standards in 1921, and by 1929, lighting sets carried the UL tag.

In 1924, GE and Westinghouse replaced the smooth cone-shaped lamps with smaller ribbed bulbs. The National Outfit Manufacturing Association (NOMA) was formed by 15 lighting companies; the trade association eventually merged into the NOMA Electric Corporation and became the largest Christmas lighting company in the world.

No Christmas lights were manufactured during 1941-1945 due to WWII although companies sold out their back stock. In 1946, NOMA introduced the Bubble Light, which became the world’s best-selling Christmas light set. Other companies followed with their own bubbling light designs. Cloth-covered lighting wires were also changed to vinyl, plastic and rubber coverings following the war.

Italy introduced Americans to the Fairy Light or miniature lights in 1950. First produced with the bulbs wired directly into the light string, these gradually became the familiar plastic base push-in lamps now in use. Twinkling Lamps, units built with a flasher bulb, first made their appearance in 1955, an innovation still widely popular today.

In 1959, the Aluminum Specialty Company first introduced the aluminum Christmas tree The Evergleam and marketed it as a permanent tree not an artificial tree. (I see what they did there.) Since aluminum is highly conductive, electric lights then on the market could not be used with these new trees and the only way to light them was with a spotlight or rotating color wheel. The aluminum tree craze lasted until 1965 when “A Charlie Brown Christmas” aired on CBS which likened the metal tree to out-and-out commercialism.

Massive importation of light sets from places like Japan and Hong Kong severely impacted and caused the collapse of many American lighting companies. By the 1970s, Americans were almost exclusively lighting their trees with imported miniature lights.

Thought you might enjoy this description of the mini lights most of us use.

Mini lites truly have a mind of their own. As soon as they are removed from the box when new, they cling together in a “hive”, resisting any attempt to free them. Shaking them annoys the mini lites very much. It makes them cling even tighter, until the only method of untangling is a pair of scissors. Should you be lucky enough to actually free them, the strands fall to the floor, immediately running for cover under your feet. (This is witnessed by the sound similar to cracking a walnut.) Once the lights are untangled, the cat becomes VERY interested in them. I believe it is the tuna flavored wire that they use. No matter, because before they can get to the tree, the cat will have chewed through the cord in 6 places. Well! You made it this far! The lights somehow make it to the tree. You of course pre-tested them, so they will work. What you fail to realize, is that the mini lites are not going to fail until they are on the tree. — Chris Cuff

You can visit the Sophienburg Museum Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m.-4.p.m. (Please note that the Sophienburg will be closed for Thanksgiving November 24-26, 2022.) Or, you can bring your little ones to see St. Nicholas on Monday, December 5 for $5 per family. Reservations are required for this event; call 830.629.1572.

Sources: Sophienburg Museum and Archives collections; www.oldchristmastreelights.com.