How Thomas Edison Illuminated the Holidays with Christmas Lights

With Christmas rapidly approaching, it is time to hark back to 1879, the year of Edison’s light bulb patent. He liked to demonstrate the magic of his new creation and entice investors with it every chance that he got. His bulbs always garnered widespread excitement with plenty of “Oohs” and “Ahhs”. That Christmas was no different, when he decorated his Menlo Park lab with his new lights, bringing spectators from near and far to see the winter magic. Inside or out, nothing adds more of a magical accent to the Holidays than bright, colorful and soothing lights.

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 on a base!

The Johnson’s illuminated and revolving tree of the future
A vintage string of Christmas tree lights on display at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, NJ

Christmas lights were not mass-produced until 1902, when General Electric, a company founded by Edison in the 1880’s, brought the holiday lights to select consumers. The lights were quite expensive and not available to the mass market until a few decades later. Advertisements that boasted a safer and odorless way to decorate for the holidays stimulated sales for the lights.

Vintage advertisements for Thomas Edison’s Christmas Lights

To this day, a large Christmas tree shines bright in the Thomas Edison’s Glenmont mansion in New Jersey every Holiday Season, which is now decorated by park rangers.  The photos below show the tree in 2018 versus what it looked like circa pre-1920!

Thomas Edison’s Christmas tree in 2018 vs. circa 1920

Mrs. Edison’s touch was everywhere during the Holidays with her special Christmas trees set up in the conservatory for her house workers to enjoy. A favorite was the Swedish candle box tree. Many decorations were lovingly placed around the house…and of course a formal printed menu for the big dinner she held every year for family and friends, usually totaling 30 people! That and her husband’s Christmas lights made it all the more memorable.


1 thought on “How Thomas Edison Illuminated the Holidays with Christmas Lights

  1. Kathy Sciamanda

    What does a Swedish candle box tree look like??? I’ve don seversl searches to no avail.

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