During the early days of the Christmas tree, candles were placed on the tree to decorate and light up its branches. This posed a fire hazard of huge proportions, burning trees and whole buildings down when a stray flame leapt onto one the branches. Every year newspapers of the time would print stories of Christmas tree catching fire accidently and burning the tree down and even the house. These fires sometimes took the lives of family residing in the house. Edward Hibberd Johnson wanted to change this.
In 1882, Edward Hibberd Johnson, the Vice President of Edison Electric Light Company, decided to shake up the tradition of lighting up ones tree. A reporter from the Detroit Post and Tribune described the tree that Johnson had styled as having 80 brilliant red, white and blue hand wired bulbs “about as large as a English walnut”. Wire mounted to the ceiling were an additional 28 sparkling lights. Johnson’s tree also spun in acircle six times a minute on a small wooden box as the lights flashed in a “continuous twinkling of dancing colors.” “I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight,” the reporter stated “One can hardly imagine anything prettier”.
The first Christmas tree lights had to be wired individually by a professional electrician. The bulbs did not have the screw in base as we have in today’s bulbs. This prohibited most people from adding these lights to their own Christmas trees due to the high cost. The only people that could afford this luxury were high society. If a bulb burned out on your tree, an electrician had to be called. There was no other alternative at this time.
In 1894, the White House Christmas tree was electrified. President Grover Cleveland had this installed after his daughters had seen one and fell in love with it. The average citizen of the country still used candles on the tree at this time.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that average American’s were able to afford electric tree lights. General Electric produced and sold Christmas lights that could be installed by the average person. The company told of the safety advantages of their lights compared to candles. Some ads even included a Christmas tree engulfed in an inferno to further drive the point home.
General Electric began to sell Christmas lights of eight lamp strands called “festoons”. These lights resembled modern lights as they had prewired porcelain sockets, miniature glass bulbs and a screw in plug that was able to be used in a light or ceiling socket. Most consumers could not pay the $12 for a three festoon set but some stores did rent them out for $1.50.
By the 1940’s, most of the country had access to electricity and had replaced candles with electric tree lights. Nobody worried about if the Christmas tree was going to catch on fire but with untangling the strands of lights and figuring out which bulb was burned out on the strands.