The Tangled History of Christmas Lights

Published: December 13, 2020

We did some research to find out where the tradition of putting up Christmas light started. We were not entirely surprised to find that it started about the same time the first light bulb was patented.

In this article from the Smithsonian Magazine, they explain how “in 1882, in a townhouse at 136 East 36th Street in New York City, Edward Hibberd Johnson had an idea that would make him the unsung set decorator of a zillion holiday snapshots. Fronted by a luxurious mustache, this loyal lieutenant to Thomas Edison was the embodiment of his era: part engineer, part businessman, part Barnum. In 1871, Johnson hired Edison, then a 24-year-old inventor, as a consultant for the Automatic Telegraph Company. “

The article continues to reveal more about Edisons contributions tot his tradition explaining how ” Over at the Edison shop, Johnson saw an opportunity. Setting up a tree by the street-side window of his parlor, Johnson hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and strung them together around it, and placed the trunk on a revolving pedestal, all powered by a generator. Then he called a reporter. “At the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect,” wrote W.A. Croffut, a veteran writer for the Detroit Post and Tribune. “It was brilliantly lighted with...eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue....One can hardly imagine anything prettier.” The lights drew a crowd as passers-by stopped to peer at the glowing marvel. Johnson turned his stunt into a tradition; he also pioneered the practice of doing more each year: An 1884 New York Times article counted 120 bulbs on his dazzling tree.”

The article concludes by estimating the amount of Christmas light sets sold each year to be over 150 million. “They light 80 million homes and consume 6 percent of the nation’s electrical load each December. And though the contagious joy of these lights has been co-opted orange at Halloween and red at Valentine’s Day, it all started with Johnson’s miracle on 36th Street.”

 
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