A Seasonal Perennial: Who Invented Christmas Tree Lights?

A Christmas tree in the historic PNC Bank building, downtown D.C., ca 2000. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith. Prints and Photographs Division.

We run the answer to this question every couple of years in the hopes of (peacefully) resolving holiday trivia disputeswhich may or may not occur at family gatherings, in person or online. This first ran in 2017.

Thomas Edison, inventor of the first successful practical light bulb, created the very first strand of electric lights. During Christmas 1880, strands of lights were strung outside his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory, giving railroad passengers traveling by their first look at an electrical light display. But it would take almost 40 years for electric Christmas lights to become a tradition.

On Christmas Eve 1923, President Calvin Coolidge presided over the lighting of the National Christmas Tree with 3,000 electric lights. Prints and Photographs Division. 

Before electric Christmas lights, families used candles to light their Christmas trees. This practice was dangerous, and led to many home fires. In 1882, Edward H. Johnson, Edison’s friend and partner, put together the very first string of electric lights meant for a Christmas tree. He hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and wound them around his Christmas tree. Not only was the tree illuminated with electricity, but it also revolved.

But the wider world was not yet ready for electrical illumination—many people continued to greatly mistrust electricity. Some credit President Grover Cleveland with spurring the acceptance of indoor electric Christmas lights when in 1895 he asked for the White House family Christmas tree to be illuminated by hundreds of multicolored electric light bulbs.

Two children with a lighted Christmas tree in the middle of a train set. Prints and Photographs Division.

At the time, the wiring of electric lights was very expensive, requiring the services of a wireman, the equivalent of our modern-day electrician. Some have estimated that lighting an average Christmas tree with electric lights before the turn of the century cost $2,000 in today’s dollars. In 1903, General Electric began to offer preassembled kits of stringed Christmas lights, making their use more affordable.

Edison and Johnson may have been the first to create electric strands of lights. But it was Albert Sadacca, whose family owned a novelty lighting company, who saw a future in selling them. In 1917, when he was still a teenager, Albert suggested that the company sell brightly colored strands of Christmas lights to the public. Later, Albert and his brothers organized what became the National Outfit Manufacturers Association Electric Company. It cornered the Christmas light market until the 1960s.

This post draws on the science reference site, “Everyday Mysteries: Fun Facts from the Library of Congress.”  Subscribe to the blog— it’s free! — and the largest library in world history will send cool stories straight to your inbox.

2 Comments

  1. RAVINDER TALWAR
    December 22, 2020 at 12:55 pm

    The contents are really inspiring and awesome

  2. GAYLE LAWRENCE
    December 26, 2020 at 9:24 am

    NOMA was still in business, selling Christmas lights and replacement bulbs, until 2000 or so. The company may have changed its name, or been taken over by another company. Our local True Value stores replaced the NOMA brand of lights with their own Holiday Wonderland branded lights.

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