History of Electric Christmas Tree Lights

Thomas Edison's Employee Pioneered the Electric Christmas Tree

Illustration of 19th century electric Christmas lights
Electric Christmas lights shown in an advertisement from the 1890s. Getty Images

Like so many things electrical, the history of electric Christmas lights begins with Thomas Edison. During the Christmas season of 1880, Edison, who had invented the incandescent bulb the previous year, hung strings of electric lights outside his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

An article in the New York Times on December 21, 1880, described a visit by officials from the New York City government to Edison's laboratory in Menlo Park. The walk from the train station to Edison's building was lined with electric lamps was illuminated with 290 light bulbs "which cast a soft and mellow light on all sides."

Did You Know?

  • The first use of electric Christmas lighting was by Thomas Edison in 1880.
  • The first illuminated Christmas tree was shown off by one of Edison's employees to reporters who visited his Manhattan house in 1882.
  • Electric lights were very costly at first and required the services of a trained electrician.
  • When the cost of electric lights became affordable, their use quickly spread as they were much safer than candles.

It doesn't appear from the article that Edison intended the lights to be associated with Christmas. But he was hosting a holiday dinner for the delegation from New York, and the novel lighting seemed to fit in with the holiday mood.

Up to that time, it was common to illuminate Christmas trees with small candles, which could, of course, be dangerous. In 1882, an employee of Edison put on a show with electric lights that was fully intended to establish the practical application of electricity to the celebration of Christmas. Edward H. Johnson, a close friend of Edison and the president of the company Edison formed to provide illumination in New York City, used electric lights for the first time to illuminate a Christmas tree.

The First Electric Christmas Tree Lights

Johnson rigged up a Christmas tree with electrical lights, and, in typical style for the Edison companies, he solicited coverage in the press. An 1882 dispatch in the Detroit Post and Tribune about a visit to Johnson’s house in New York City may have been the first news coverage of electric Christmas lights.

A month later, a magazine of the time, Electrical World, also reported on Johnson’s tree. Their item called it “the handsomest Christmas tree in the United States.”

Two years later, the New York Times sent a reporter to Johnson’s house on the East Side of Manhattan, and an astoundingly detailed story appeared in the edition of December 27, 1884.

Headlined, "A Brilliant Christmas Tree: How an Electrician Amused His Children," the article began:

"A pretty as well as novel Christmas tree was shown to a few friends by Mr. E.H. Johnson, President of the Edison Company for Electric Lighting, last evening in his residence, No. 136 East Thirty-sixth Street. The tree was lighted by electricity, and children never beheld a brighter tree or one more highly colored than the children of Mr. Johnson when the current was turned and the tree began to revolve. Mr. Johnson has been experimenting with house lighting by electricity for some time past, and he determined that his children should have a novel Christmas tree.
"It stood about six feet high, in an upper room, last evening, and dazzled persons entering the room. There were 120 lights on the tree, with globes of different colors, while the light tinsel work and usual adornment of Christmas trees appeared to their best advantage in illuminating the tree."

An Edison Dynamo Rotated the Tree

Johnson’s tree, as the article went on to explain, was quite elaborate, and it rotated thanks to his clever use of Edison dynamos:

"Mr. Johnson had placed a little Edison dynamo at the foot of the tree, which by passing a current through from the large dynamo in the cellar of the house, converted it into a motor. By means of this motor, the tree was made to revolve with a steady, regular motion.
"The lights were divided into six sets, one set of which was lighted at a time in front as the tree went round. By a simple devise of breaking and making connection through copper bands around the tree with corresponding buttons, the sets of lights were turned out and on at regular intervals as the tree turned around. The first combination was of pure white light, then, as the revolving tree severed the connection of the current that supplied it and made connection with a second set, red and white lights appeared. Then came yellow and white and other colors. Even combinations of the colors were made. By dividing the current from the large dynamo Mr. Johnson could stop the motion of the tree without putting out the lights."

The New York Times provided two more paragraphs containing even more technical detail about the Johnson family's astounding Christmas tree. Reading the article more than 120 years later, it’s obvious that the reporter considered the electric Christmas lights to be a serious invention.

The First Electric Christmas Lights Were Costly

While Johnson’s tree was considered a marvel, and Edison’s company tried to market electric Christmas lights, they did not become immediately popular. The cost of the lights and the services of an electrician to install them was out of the reach of the general public. However, wealthy people would hold Christmas tree parties to show off electric lighting.

Grover Cleveland reportedly ordered a White House Christmas tree that was lit with Edison bulbs in 1895. (The first White House Christmas tree belonged to Benjamin Harrison, in 1889, and was lit by candles.)

The use of small candles, despite their inherent danger, remained the popular method of illuminating household Christmas trees until well into the 20th century.

Electric Christmas Tree Lights Made Safe

A popular legend is that a teenager named Albert Sadacca, after reading about a tragic New York City fire in 1917 caused by candles lighting a Christmas tree, urged his family, which was in the novelty business, to begin manufacturing affordable strings of lights. The Sadacca family tried marketing electric Christmas lights but sales were slow at first.

As people became more attuned to household electricity, strings of electric bulbs became increasing common on Christmas trees. Albert Sadacca, incidentally, became the head of a lighting company worth millions of dollars. Other companies, including most notably General Electric, entered the Christmas light business, and by the 1930s electric Christmas lights had become a standard part of holiday decorating.

Early in the 20th century the tradition began of having public tree lighting. One of the most famous, the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C., began in 1923. A tree, place on the ellipse, at the southern end of the White House grounds, was first illuminated on December 24, 1923 by President Calvin Coolidge. A newspaper report the following day described the scene:

"As the sun sank below the Potomac the President touched a button which lighted up the nation's Christmas tree. The giant fir from his native Vermont instantly blazed with myriad electrics which shone through tinsels and reds, while those who surrounded this community tree, children and grown-ups, cheered and sang.
"The crowds on foot were augmented by thousands who came in motor cars, and to the music of the singers was added the discord of horns. For hours the people thronged to the ellipse, which was dark except in the spot where the tree stood, its brilliancy heightened by a searchlight which shed its rays from the Washington Monument overlooking it."

Another prominent tree lighting, at Rockefeller Center in New York City, began modestly in 1931 when construction workers decorated a tree. When the office complex officially opened two years later, the tree lighting became an official event. In the modern era the Rockefeller Center tree lighting has become a yearly event carried live on national television.

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McNamara, Robert. "History of Electric Christmas Tree Lights." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/history-of-electric-christmas-tree-lights-1773789. McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). History of Electric Christmas Tree Lights. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-electric-christmas-tree-lights-1773789 McNamara, Robert. "History of Electric Christmas Tree Lights." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-electric-christmas-tree-lights-1773789 (accessed May 29, 2023).