A Brief History of Christmas Lights

Holiday lighting has come a long way from Thomas Edison’s first strand of glass bulbs.



Each year, more than 150 million sets of Christmas lights are sold and more than 80 million homes are decorated with them—in America alone. It’s probably no surprise that the use of electric Christmas lights can be traced back to Thomas Edison, who not only invented the first successful light bulb, but also created the first strand of lights, which he strung outside his lab during the Christmas of 1880 to advertise his new invention—and to wow passing commuters.

Two years later, his friend and business partner, Edward H. Johnson, concocted the first set of stringed lights specifically for a Christmas tree, hand-wiring 80 small colored bulbs with which he adorned his own tree in his home in Manhattan. In 1884, Johnson patented the mechanism for “shifting the lights” on and off (the word “blinking,” in this sense, was not yet part of the vernacular). Though beautiful, electric Christmas lights were rarely used through the early 20th century because they were both dangerous (a fire hazard) and inordi-   nately expensive ($12—or about $300 in today’s currency—in 1903 for a 24-light strand by General Electric). They were the purview of the very wealthy, and the few others who used them often rented them.  

In 1895, during Grover Cleveland’s presidency, the White House displayed its first electrically lit Christmas tree, and, in 1903, the first commercially available (socketless, hand-wired) sets were sold—mostly to stores and businesses. Two years later, GE sold the first sets of pre-wired Christmas lights—known as “festoons”—which included miniature-base carbon filament lamps; string lights were first certified by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) in 1905.

Still, it wasn’t until 1917, when a teen named Albert Sadacca suggested that his parents, who owned a lighting company in New York, begin selling colored lights for Christmas trees, that Christmas lights began to be produced and sold in high volume. Later, Sadacca’s own company, NOMA Electric Corporation, became the largest Christmas light manufacturer until the ’60s.

Through the decades, there have been many developments—and numerous patents filed—in the area of holiday lighting. Changes in lighting include everything from wiring to filaments to lamp type (incandescent, fluorescent, LED) to colors to lighting mechanisms. Miniature lights were an especially important development, because the lamps were made of plastic and could be easily and inexpensively mass-produced. Soon, they were available in various steady-burning, twinkling, blinking, and flashing speeds, patterns, and sequences, such as the fast-flashing lights that were popular in the ’70s, the changing-pattern lights that were a trend in the late ’80s and ’90s, and the “chaser” lights that have been popular since the late ’90s.

Through the decades, there have been many developments—and numerous patents filed—in the area of holiday lighting. Changes in lighting include everything from wiring to filaments to lamp type (incandescent, fluorescent, LED) to colors to lighting mechanisms. Miniature lights were an especially important development, because the lamps were made of plastic and could be easily and inexpensively mass-produced. Soon, they were available in various steady-burning, twinkling, blinking, and flashing speeds, patterns, and sequences, such as the fast-flashing lights that were popular in the ’70s, the changing-pattern lights that were a trend in the late ’80s and ’90s, and the “chaser” lights that have been popular since the late ’90s.
Today, the biggest—and, literally, brightest—development in Christmas lights is the advent of LED lighting. Though the technology was discovered more than a century ago, it was not developed until the ’60s, and then only for commercial use. In the late 1990s, the technology had advanced enough to make LED Christmas lighting available for residential use, and, today, the lights—which burn cooler, longer, and brighter than traditional bulbs—are a popular and widely available choice. Miss the warmth and glow of Christmases past? You can usually score some vintage lighting on eBay.