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Question:

    Who invented electric Christmas lights?

Answer:    

    Thomas Edison and Edward Johnson (1880 &1882) and Albert Sadacca (1917).

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.

Standard DisclaimerRelated Web Sites

Library of Congress Web SiteFurther Reading
  • A brilliant Christmas tree. How an electrician amused his children. I. New York Times, Dec. 27, 1884. p. 5.
  • Brenner, Robert. Electric lighting of Christmas trees. In Christmas past: a collectors’ guide to its history and decorations. West Chester, PA, Schiffer Pub., c1985. p. 156-169.
  • Brenner, Robert. Electric lights: some interesting variations. In Christmas revisited. West Chester, PA, Schiffer Pub., c1986. p. 100-111.
  • Brenner, Robert. Indoor electric lighting of our trees and homes. In Christmas 1960- present: a collectors’ guide to decorations and customs. West Chester, PA, Schiffer Pub., c2002. p. 41-44, 70-72, 103, and 157.
  • Brenner, Robert. Indoor electric Christmas lights of our homes and trees. In Christmas 1940-1959: a collectors’ guide to decorations and customs. West Chester, PA, Schiffer Pub., c2002. p. 53-66 and 154-170.
  • Brenner, Robert. Outdoor electric Christmas lights. In Christmas 1940-1959: a collectors’ guide to decorations and customs. West Chester, PA, Schiffer Pub., c2002. p. 66-68 and 171-173.
  • Brenner, Robert. Outdoor electric lighting. In Christmas 1960- present: a collectors’ guide to decorations and customs. West Chester, PA, Schiffer Pub., c2002. p. 45-47, 73-74, 104, and 157.
  • Seeley, Mary Evans. Season’s Greetings from the White House. Prologue, v. 28, Winter 1999: 304-313.
  • Sloat, Warren. The wizard of your Christmas tree. American Heritage, v. 54, December 2003: 36- 40.
  • Turning on Christmas: history of electric Christmas tree lights. Newsweek, v. 74, December 29, 1969:8.

SearchFor more print resources...
Search on "Christmas," "Christmas decorations," "Christmas -- collectibles," "electric lighting," "incandescent lamps" or "light bulbs," in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.

Photo:  Tall tree blazing with light.  Capitol dome in the background.
2000 Capitol Christmas Tree, a 65-foot. Colorado Blue Spruce, with over over 10,000 blue, white, and amber electric lights. Photo: Architect of the Capitol Web site.

Wooden crate, labeled, "GLASS," and  "Decorative Lighting,"  and with various  color Christmas scenes .
The General Electric Christmas lighting outfit, the first set offered for sale to the public. Circa 1903-1904. Photo: The Antique Christmas Lights Museum
Colored lightbulbs packed inside of a wooden crate.
Light bulbs, part of the first lighting "outfit" offered to the public.

Cords and sockets packed inside of a wooden crate.
Wires, circuit box, and light bulb sockets, part of the first lighting "outfit" offered to the public.

Photo: large tree being erected on a lawn, with the  White House in the background.
The first National Christmas Tree being set up. Photo: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Photo: men standing near a large tree strung with lights.
President Coolidge at the lighting of the first National Christmas Tree on December 24, 1923. Photo: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Photo: garden gazebo covered with brightly colored lights against a night background.
Garden of Lights at Brookside Gardens, Wheaten, MD. Photo: Montgomery County Parks Web site.

Photo:  three people. one holding a baby, near a Christmas tree with lighted candles on it.
What is a home without love? c. 1900, shows a tree with lighted candles. Photo: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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  December 6, 2013
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