The Wizard Of Your Christmas Tree

PrintPrintEmailEmailThe days were growing. shorter as the Christmas season of 1880 drew near. Many American families planned to decorate Christmas trees—a German custom that, although it had begun to catch on only a generation earlier, was spreading year by year. But travelers on the Pennsylvania Railroad in the early darkness of approaching winter were excited about a lighting display such as the world had never seen.

Thomas Edison had laid out eight miles of underground wire across a square halfmile of his “invention factory” at Menlo Park, New Jersey. He had planted plain white posts in row upon row in his field and atop them had wired his newly invented incandescent lamps. Glass globes covered the bulbs. At night, when he started up his central power station, consisting of 11 dynamos of his own invention, the bare fields lit up with what looked like the streetlights of a tiny doll-sized town.

The railroad passed close to Edison’s rural laboratory outpost. As the trains between New York and Philadelphia approached Menlo Park, the passengers were drawn into a brilliant nighttime spectacle. The lighting display, a good example of Edison’s shrewd self-promotion, was the sensation of the season.

The press, which had already dubbed him 'Wizard of Menlo Park,' beat a path to his door. The 33-year-old inventor of the world’s first practical incandescent lamp boasted to journalists that he intended to light whole cities with his electrical system, that it was only a matter of time until gaslight, which he called dirty and unsafe, became obsolete.

Edison had planned this extravagant display for months. His manufacturing plant had turned out thousands of bulbs. Trenches had been dug for underground wiring, conducting mains laid. The generating station was assembled in an annex of the library. In addition to his imposing outdoor display, hundreds of lamps were installed in the homes, boardinghouses, and plant buildings of his New Jersey research facility.

One of the earliest visitors was Sarah Bernhardt, the French tragedienne, who was making her American debut that season. Arriving with a party from New York on December 5, the famous actress was eager to meet the brilliant young inventor, whose renown had spread to Europe. Edison led Bernhardt and her party to his laboratory balcony for a panoramic view of the outdoor display. An assistant dimmed the lights by turning a large wheel that controlled the flow of current. Then, while the party gazed from the balcony, Edison had his assistant turn the power up again, and the starry field was gradually illuminated to full brilliance. Sarah Bernhardt asked to try it herself. She turned the wheel slowly, as she had seen it done, and when she brought the lights up again, she clapped her hands in delight.

Edison’s display dazzled hundreds of other visitors that Christmas season. Bankers and stockbrokers, scientists, journalists, and government officials came from Philadelphia and New York to see it. One reporter called Edison “the Enchanter” and described the evening view at Menlo Park as “a fairy-land of lights.” The spectators who came to gaze at the lights—and get a close-up look at the Wizard—shared their era’s passion for technological progress, and in 1880 Thomas Edison embodied the spirit of that progress.

He had mounted his light show primarily to promote his plan to electrify downtown Manhattan—and eventually the world. Having little use for religion and being indifferent to festivity, he did not intend his display as a celebration of Christmas, yet surely he sensed that identifying his lights with the holiday might further suggest that a wondrous new age was about to unfold.

And the display did influence New York’s governing fathers. Just under two years later Edison had a central generating station humming away in downtown New York, and it enabled Edward H. Johnson, a friend and longtime business associate, to decorate a tree in his Manhattan home with red, white, and blue electric lights. A reporter from the Detroit Post and Tribune described the tree as “presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect,” with “eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs … all the lights going out and being relit. … It was a superb exhibition.”

The electrification of the United States had begun. That vast project didn’t blind Edison to the niche market for Christmas lights, however. He pursued his vision of progress not only in grand schemes but in gadgetry, and he certainly was not averse to finding more advanced ways to light trees. Records in the Edison Papers show that his lampworks was making small decorative bulbs by at least as early as 1888, according to Paul Israel, director of the inventor’s archival storehouse at Rutgers University.

What did people use to decorate Christmas trees before that? For one thing, glass candle cups, usually colored and multifaceted; for another, metal candle lanterns, with isinglass or glass sides. But the main source of tree lighting was the bare candlestick, which was messy and hazardous. People tried rope candles, which twisted around the branches, but proper attachment was difficult and time-consuming. They tried sticking a pin through the bottom of a branch and fastening the candle to it. They tried pinning little round trays with pinholes to branches to catch the dripping wax. And they tried candleholders with clay-ball counterweights that looped around under the branches. “In 1887,” writes Robert Brenner, author of Christmas Through the Decades, “they invented a clip-on candle holder which enabled people to get the candle way out on the tip of the branches so that there would be less chance of a fire.”

Electric lights nonetheless met initial resistance. “People were very fearful of them,” Brenner says, so “the first tree lights were advertised as electric candles.” Associating them with a known commodity, the advertisements stressed safety and dependability and said nothing about their charms or technological novelty.

The public knew what to expect from candles. In many homes a pail of water was placed near the tree in case a branch caught fire. Also, when the tree was lit, everyone gathered around to watch it. “We’re talking about a tree being lit for half an hour at most,” notes Brenner. Families kept their newly cut trees in unheated parlors so they would stay green and moist, to reduce the fire hazard.

The first electric lamps, with carbonized bamboo filaments, were dangerously hot, a condition alleviated with the coming of tungsten filaments. Moreover, people at the end of the nineteenth century were still fearful of electrical currents. Hardly a week went by without a newspaper account of a death by accidental electrocution in an American city. Yet Christmas lights won the hearts of Americans fairly quickly. In 1895 the White House Christmas tree was festooned with multicolored electric lights for the first time, and by 1903 General Electric was offering pre-wired Christmas lights (earlier they had to be individually hand-wired).

By the 1920s the Christmas-lighting industry was growing rapidly. In 1925, 15 manufacturers formed a trade organization called NOMA (the National Outfit Manufacturers Association), whose members soon dominated the market. Outdoor lights came along around the same time. Styles and tastes changed as people sought new effects. Figural lights—molds of Santa Claus, elves, reindeer, and the like—were big early in the twentieth century. All-blue lights were the thing during the Depression years, making a very dramatic effect, especially with soap flakes on the boughs to resemble snow.

Candle-shaped bubble lights became a fad in the late 1940s; they were filled with a fluid with a low boiling point so that small light bulbs at the bottom could generate enough heat to get the bubbles rising, but they never replaced the standard cone-shaped light. The era of aluminum trees with Color Wheels, rotating multicolored floodlights that illuminated the tree, came and went. In the 1950s tree trimmers fell in love with miniature lights, first made in Italy, a taste that began to pall at the end of the eighties, when the traditional cone-shaped bulb began its comeback. In the 1970s people looked for new colors, like pink and turquoise.

According to trend watchers such as Bill Nelson, a Tennessean who maintains a Web site called www.oldchristmaslights.com, traditional bulbs are beginning to appear more frequently in outdoor displays, replacing the miniature white lights that have been in vogue for almost two decades. Nostalgia is coming in, and even bubble lights are coming back.

Electric Christmas lights remain a largely American custom. Many Europeans still prefer candles and light up their trees as a special event, while Americans, as Brenner puts it, “turn on the tree when they get home from work and turn it off when they go to bed.” Americans seek what Edison delivered in 1880: a fairyland of lights, a magic show, a technology devoted to decoration.

One of the early clues to how Americans would take to Christmas lights came in Mrs. J. E. H. Gordon’s 1891 book Decorative Electricity. She wanted people to use artificial lighting with personal style, and she expressed the hope of many Americans that progress would be not just about utility but about enhancing life in small details as well as in grand ways. (Historians will note that her homey vision of clean, well-lighted places beyond the primitive starkness of frontier life came at the moment when Frederick Jackson Turner announced the closing of the frontier.) “If Mrs. Gordon’s ideas were carried out,” a reviewer commented in Electrical World magazine, “the perfection of lighting in our parlors and dining rooms would be reached. We should be conscious of agreeable illuminations, but never find the lamps intrusive.”

And there’s more to the story than just agreeable illuminations. Bill Nelson notes that inventive engineers, searching for a way to connect several strings of Christmas lights, came up with innovations that improved on the pronged wall plug. It’s not like inventing the computer, but it’s what we still use to bring it power.