The History of Christmas Lights cover

The History of Christmas Lights

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In the spirit of the holiday season, we are highlighting another Everyday Mystery relevant to this time of the year: Who invented electric Christmas lights?
Inside Adams, Library of Congress


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The History of Christmas Lights

In the spirit of the holiday season, we are highlighting another Everyday Mystery relevant to this time of the year: Who invented electric Christmas lights?

The short answer is Thomas Alva Edison and Edward H. Johnson. After all, Edison created the first practical light bulb and successfully strung together the first strand of electric lights outside his Menlo Park Laboratory during the 1880 holiday season.

Two years later Edward H. Johnson, Edison’s friend and partner in the Edison’s Illumination Company, hand- wired a strand of red, white, and blue bulbs to go around his revolving Christmas tree.

Photo: The Antique Christmas Lights Museum

The General Electric Christmas lighting outfit, the first set offered for sale to the public. Circa 1903-1904.

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.

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.

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.

Photo: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

c. 1900, shows a tree with lighted candles.

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.

Photo Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

President Coolidge illuminating the community Christmas tree, which has been erected on the Monument Grounds, 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.

Photo: The Antique Christmas Lights Museum

Wires, circuit box, and light bulb sockets, part of the first lighting "outfit" offered to the public.

Photo: The Antique Christmas Lights Museum

Part of the first lighting "outfit" offered to the public.

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 the popularization of 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.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Photo shows night view of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., decorated with electric lights for the first inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson

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.