If you celebrate Christmas, these days your mind is probably turning to that eternal question… where did I put the Christmas lights? No matter if you celebrate Christmas or not, or if you keep your lights up all year round instead of just for a season, it seems that most people can agree that those lovely little lights are a visual treat. Their warm glow and beautiful colors have been pleasing people around the world since Thomas Edison premiered the first string lights in New York City on Dec 21, 1880. Although they were large bulbs of plain white, and hanging over a walkway, not a tree, even the dignified New York Times newspaper felt their effect, as the reviewer declared them “beautiful to look upon.” How did string lights become so popular, and so strongly linked to the holiday season that they are now commonly referred to as “Christmas lights?”
The massive popularity of Christmas lights is a tale of technical know-how with plenty of business savvy on the side. Thomas Edison is often hailed as the inventor of string lights, but in fact, Joseph Swan, an inventor in the UK, was the first to develop the beautiful invention that he called “fairy lights.” However, Thomas Edison, in true Thomas Edison fashion, perfected Swan’s already existing design for mass production, and claimed the design for himself. When he wasn’t redesigning other people’s inventions, Edison was quite the self-promotional showman and he traveled frequently, giving spectacular demonstrations of his latest electrical marvels. In his lifetime, the United States was just barely beginning to become electrified. Cleverly, Thomas Edison used Swan’s fairy lights as a way to entertain, impress, and promote electricity itself.
One of Edison’s main selling points for electrification was the fact that, compared to burning coal or gas in one’s house, electricity was relatively safe. His mission to promote electricity was helped by the fact that previous Christmas custom had people lighting REAL candles on a Christmas tree, inside. Although people tended to be very cautious with this beautiful custom and did not usually leave it unsupervised, accidents still happened. To replace such an obvious fire hazard with a much safer electric one was a stroke of genius. With his new string lights, he was able to promote both the product and electricity itself to fascinated audiences all over the world.
Edison was an inventor, but he was also an excellent marketer. He knew that Swan’s lights would be a perfect item to catch the public’s attention, just like they catch our attention even today. However, it took a few years before fairy lights were definitively linked to the holiday season as they are now. Working closely with the Vice President of the Edison Electric Light Company, Edward H. Johnson, in 1882 the pair developed a set of colored lights in red, white, and blue, perfect for a tree. Edward Johnson lived in a part of New York City that had recently been electrified, and so he was able to hand-wire 80 lights to a generator to illuminate his tree, which he conveniently placed in a street-facing parlor window. On a rotating platform. The press was drawn like moths to flame. A writer for the Detroit Post and Tribune said of the lights: “one could hardly imagine anything prettier.”
The popularity of Christmas lights grew right alongside the popularity of electricity. In 1894, president Grover Cleveland was an early adopter of the trend, electrifying the White House Christmas tree. The first strings of commercial Christmas lights premiered for public sale, at a price of 12 dollars, or 350 dollars today. Today in the United States, people buy 150 million dollars’ worth of light sets every year, which light 80 million homes and consume 6 percent of the nation’s electricity in December. Thomas Edison would be very pleased.
Sources and Further Reading:
A quick overview of the history and technology of Christmas lights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcPynvIuX-Y
Edison’s Christmas lights: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/untangling-history-christmas-lights-180961140/
Edison’s Christmas lights meet his marketing savvy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qB61a_qbuo
Edison’s inventions that were other people’s first: https://www.historicmysteries.com/did-thomas-edison-steal-inventions/
Edison and Swan: https://www.ipaustralia.gov.au/sites/default/files/education/worksheet_3-_who_was_joseph_swan.pdf?acsf_files_redirect