Thomas Edison, the inventor of the first successful practical light bulb, created the very first strand of electric lights. During the Christmas season of 1880, these strands were strung around the outside of his Menlo Park Laboratory. Railroad passengers traveling by the laboratory got their first look at an electrical light display. But it would take almost forty years for electric Christmas lights to become the tradition that we all know and love.
Before electric Christmas lights, families would use candles to light up their Christmas trees. This practice was often dangerous and led to many home fires. Edward H. Johnson put the very first string of electric Christmas tree lights together in 1882. Johnson, Edison’s friend and partner in the Edison’s Illumination Company, hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and wound them around his Christmas tree. Not only was the tree illuminated with electricity, it also revolved.
However, the world was not quite ready for electrical illumination. There was a great mistrust of electricity and it would take many more years for society to decorate its Christmas trees and homes with electric lights. Some credit President Grover Cleveland with spurring the acceptance of indoor electric Christmas lights. In 1895, President Cleveland requested that the White House family Christmas tree be illuminated by hundreds of multi-colored electric light bulbs.
On Christmas Eve 1923, President Calvin Coolidge began the country’s celebration of Christmas by lighting the National Christmas Tree with 3,000 electric lights on the Ellipse located south of the White House.
Until 1903, when General Electric began to offer pre-assembled kits of Christmas lights, stringed lights were reserved for the wealthy and electrically savvy. The wiring of electric lights was very expensive and required the hiring of the services of a wireman, our modern-day electrician. According to some, to light an average Christmas tree with electric lights before 1903 would have cost $2000.00 in today’s dollars.
While Thomas Edison and Edward H. Johnson may have been the first to create electric strands of light in 1880/1882, it was Albert Sadacca who saw a future in selling electric Christmas lights. The Sadacca family owned a novelty lighting company and in 1917 Albert, a teenager at the time, suggested that its store offer brightly colored strands of Christmas lights to the public. By the 1920’s Albert and his brothers organized the National Outfit Manufacturers Association (NOMA), a trade association. NOMA soon became NOMA Electric Co., with its members cornering the Christmas light market until the 1960’s.
Today we expect to see the holiday season become aglow with electric strands of light. Think of the variety and range of Christmas lights available in today’s market. We can be grateful to Thomas Edison, Edward H. Johnson and Albert Sadacca for illuminating our holiday season.