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The History of Electric Holiday Lights

The History of Electric Holiday Lights

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, you likely take part in displaying some festive lights during this time of year to bring some cheer to the shorter days and longer dark nights.

So who first had the idea to hang electric lights—rather than just good old-fashioned candles—on trees and houses in the first place?

Holiday Lights Before Electricity

Long before the discovery of electricity and the invention of the light bulb, people made the decision to cut down trees and bring them indoors for decoration during the cold winter months.

Since the holidays occur around the time of Winter Solstice, many of these early traditions had to do with nature and honoring the transition from shorter days and longer nights to springtime and more daylight. The tree branches were a symbol of the spring weather to come for many people. Germans are largely credited with started the Christmas tree tradition, though not everyone could afford or chop down a tree and would use some other structure for decorating in this season. This go-getter also made his family’s tree revolve as it twinkled!

It was the British royals in the 1800s who made the most well known holiday tree that resembles what many families display today: the tree was decorated with fruit (quite a treat back then!), toys, ornaments (also called “baubles”), and wax candles. Many years into what became a tradition for the royals, a magazine published an article with an illustration of this dressed up indoor tree and the trend took off for non-royals.

The First Electric Holiday Lights

As you can imagine, putting lit candles on to live trees had its risks and led to many fires inside of homes.

According to the Library of Congress, it was Thomas Edison—also known for developing the first light bulb--who created the first string of holiday lights. These were not, however, hung on a tree inside a home. This first string of lights was more practical and displayed outside of Mr. Edison’s laboratory in 1880 where train passengers could see them glowing as they rode by.

In 1882, it was Edward H. Johnson, a friend and business partner of Mr. Edison who made a string of blue, red, and white bulbs that were hand-wired and wrapped around his family’s holiday tree. This go-getter also made the tree revolve as it twinkled!

Despite these inventive display of festiveness, not everyone had—or trusted—electricity to make their holiday décor glow. In 1895, President Grover Cleveland asked that the White House family tree be illuminated with multi-colored lights—by professionals since there were no packaged strings of lights yet. Back then, an electrician was called a “wireman” and their jobs involved a lot of electrical wires and making these strings by hand. It’s estimated that these early holiday light string installations cost about $2,000 in today’s dollars.

By 1917, Albert Sadacca saw an opportunity in making these “novelty” holiday light strings so that more people could purchase them. His family’s business, the National Outfit Manufacturers Association Electric Company dominated the holiday lights market until the 1960s when competitors joined with their versions.

Modern Holiday Lights

Today the holiday lights market is filled with all kinds of options and Mister Sparky can assist with making both indoor and outdoor displays possible and safe:

  • Outdoor outlets can have specific risks due to exposure to the elements so make sure a licensed electrician inspects these each year. A Club Membership will include maintenance check ups.
  • Not all extension cords are meant to be used outdoors and they don’t last forever so you should check for fraying. Get more tips on extension cords in this The Spruce article.
  • Is your electrical panel ready for this increased use? It might be time for an electrical panel upgrade or a subpanel.

May your holidays be merry and BRIGHT!

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