Originally created 12/22/96

Innovation has brightened Christmas trees over years

Collectors have found new ways to capture the nostalgia of early Christmas lights. Nevermind if the candles in the tin holders aren't lighted, or if the fanciful china cartoon character bulbs and decorative glass light globes can no longer be turned on. Like antique Christmas ornaments from the past, they have become part of our present Christmas, hung as ornaments and eagerly sought by collectors.

A string of early 20th century lights can sell for more than $500, depending on the subject. Even bubble lights from the 1940s can sell for $100 a set.

The development of new ways to use electricity to light the Christmas tree was the American contribution to tree-lighting history. Before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, candles lighted the Christmas tree. It was a dangerous practice, with fires claiming many lives. Even earlier in the 19th century, a wick, floating in oil and held in half a nutshell, was precariously placed in tree branches. By the middle of the 19th century candleholders were attached to branches, with small dishes to catch dripping wax.

What seemed a revolutionary invention at the time was the counterweighted candleholder, invented by Charles Kirchhoff in Newark, N.J., in 1867. It hooked over the branch and the candle was held upright using a counterbalancing weight suspended on a wire beneath the candle. The weight, made of unfired clay, was a ball the size of a cherry. They were often painted or dusted with glitter.

By 1878 there were double counterweighted holders, with two weights on the end of an upside-down V-shaped wire. These often had weights cast in molds shaped like stars, birds and cherubs.

Yet another invention, the spring-clip candleholder, was patented in 1879. These clip-ons remained in use even after strings of electric lights became popular around the 1920s. Despite the fire hazard, many people couldn't give up the beauty of burning candles.

Even early American glass factories made small, tumbler-like glasses lighted by a wick, attached to a piece of wood or cork that floated in oil on top of water. They were hung from the branches. These lights came in colored or clear glass and in patterns popular in other pieces of Victorian pressed glass. Among them were diamond cut, hob nails and "thousand eye." Pretty as they were, they weighed down the branches.

Another candleholder, developed in the late 1870s, was the tin lantern, with windows of isinglass. They held a candle the size of a birthday candle. The thin isinglass windows came in red, green, amber and cream. Some were collapsible. In 1887 yet another Christmas lighting device was invented: a miniature oil lamp.

By the 1880s, small tin candleholders clipped onto the tree branches. Most interesting were those decorated in relief with pine cones and other motifs, and painted in red, gold and blue. They were imported from Germany.

The first recorded electrically lighted Christmas tree belonged to a colleague of Thomas Edison, Edward H. Johnson. On Christmas 1882, he hung a string of 80 hand-blown glass globes, with electric lights encased. The globes were egg-shaped, in red, white and blue.

By 1890 General Electric had bought Edison's rights and began making miniature Christmas-tree lights. However, they were very costly. Only the children of the rich could enjoy their enchantment. A string of 28 sockets with bulbs cost $12, in those days a working man's salary for a week. Ever-Ready Company of New York began making strings of lights in 1903, and other companies followed suit.

The first figural Christmas lights were made in Austria in 1909. They were hand-painted and handmade by the Kremenetzky Electric Co. of Vienna. Animals, fruit and Santa Claus were some of the subjects. General Electric also offered handmade and hand-painted figural bulbs. However, by 1919 they were machine-made.

World War I marked the entry of the Japanese into the Christmas-light-bulb market. They can be recognized by the use of thick milk-glass. Their cartoon characters of Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy have an Oriental look. Imports ceased during World War II.

Bubble lights, invented in the late 1930s by Carl Otis, who worked for Montgomery Ward, were the first innovation in Christmas lights since the early 20th century. They were based on the use of methaline chloride that would boil or "bubble," and introduced as "Bubble-lites" by NOMA Lites in 1945. They did not become popular until the mid-1950s.

In 1936 NOMA Lites brought yet another new look to Christmas tree lighting. Small, colored plastic "lamp shades" were decorated with decals of Disney characters.

From the mid-1930s to the late '40s "Wonder-Star" lights added the first touch of beauty to tree lighting. They were made of colored, hand-cut glass points in Czechoslovakia. They consisted of either a single row of sharp points or a double row, with a faceted glass center "jewel." Very colorful, they either combined such colors as turquoise and amber or were a single color. Others were frosted or crystal. They were sold by the Matchless Electric Co. of Chicago through mail order catalogs and department stores.

Other novelty lights of the '40s and '50s included fluorescent globes in pink, orchid and other colors.

With the growing interest in the past, Bubble-lites were reproduced in the 1970s. There are also reproductions of the pressed-glass candleholder globes.

Prices are still modest for single figural globes. The Japanese milk glass globes have been seen at mall shows for $20 each. Even early candleholders can still be found for a pittance, if you know what to look for. In this age of mass-produced moveable, musical, plastic tree decorations, one of the old lights will add the charm of the past just by hanging there.


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