Before Electricity

magic christmas lights

In the days before electricity, when laser lights were not yet invented, Christmas trees throughout the world were lit with candles.  Although most attractive, the dangers of a dry tree and an open flame are obvious. In 1901, the Woman’s Home Companion Magazine recommended 400 candles for a 12 foot tree and 250 for a smaller 6 foot tree, an almost unimaginable fire hazard in either case. Inventive decorators came up with a multitude of different devices to make the burning tapers safer, and keep them a little farther away from the tree needles. Below are a few examples of 19th century ingenuity.

To the left is a catalog illustration of the Barth Oil Lamp for Christmas Tree Lighting, essentially a miniature kerosene lamp. Patented in 1887, the device was marketed for only three years. The lamp was not a practical device, as even though it came complete with a wire to wrap around a tree branch for added stability, the unit was far too heavy to be safely usable and was extremely top-heavy. According to the patent, the glass globe was to be supplied in a variety of attractive colors, but apparently the unit was only sold with clear globes, as no colored ones are known to exist. Today, this lamp is considered by collectors to be extremely rare.

Pictured above is an assortment of colors of glass “Christmas Lights”. These units held water and cooking oil, and the wick device shown to the right was floated on top. When lit, these lights give a beautiful, sparkling effect in a darkened room. All of these examples are of American manufacture, circa 1905. Other common uses for these delightful lights were as welcoming beacons on walkways and porches, and as window or mantle lights. In addition to the use of oil and water, some people used small candles, similar to the votive candles we use today. Other popular names for these lights are Night Lights, Jubilee Lamps, Fairy Lights and Candle Cups.

All of the Christmas Lights shown above are in the “quilted” or “diamond” pattern, just one of the many pressed, mold blown or free blown patterns that collectors seek today. There were even lights molded in the likeness of popular political figures of the day, including Queen Victoria.

Figural Lamps: 1908 to 1965

Figural Christmas lamps were available to the American public in 1908, just six years after the first prewired lighting outfits were sold. At the time, the Christmas lighting industry was still in its infancy, and the availability of these wondrous new figural (or figurative, as they were called then) lamps served to make electric Christmas lighting more desirable.

Some of the earliest of these lamps were totally hand produced by the Kremenetzky Electric Company of Vienna, Austria. Mouth blown into intricately carved molds, the glass shells were each then hand painted, often by local toymakers, skilled in the trade. The figures first available were described in this article, which appeared in a November, 1910 edition of Scientific American Magazine:


The electrically lighted tree is now a feature of the holidays in many homes. This year, some new kinds of miniature incandescent lamps are available which should make the electrically lighted Christmas tree more artistic and beautiful than ever. The bulbs of the new lamps, instead of being mere “pocket editions” of the ordinary incandescent bulb, are shaped and colored to resemble fruit, flowers, birds and animals. Commercially, they are classified under five heads as follows:

1. Small fruit: including apple, blackberry, gooseberry, lemon, mulberry, orange pear, peach and strawberry.

2. Large fruit: including apple. orange, peach and pear.

3. Nuts: including acorn, pine cone and walnut.

4. Flowers: including lily, rose and thistle.

5. Animals: including canary, clown, dog, owl, snow man, and Santa Claus.

“It is doubtless somewhat embarrassing to Santa Claus to be classified as an ‘animal’, but there seems to be no alternative. The bulbs are colored by hand with waterproof paints by professional toy makers. The realistic effect is considerably heightened when the lamps are lighted. As far as the base and filaments are concerned, the miniature incandescents are just like the conventional decorative lamps used in the past (and still available) for Christmas tree illumination. They have 3/8 inch miniature screw bases, and are designed to be burned eight in series on circuits of from 100 to 120 volts. By using a bell ringing transformer they may be burned in multiple, but while the arrangement has the advantage that the burnout of a single lamp does not extinguish others, the cost of equipment is considerably greater than with the series system. The bulbs contain one candlepower filaments, but the coloring material absorbs a large percentage of the light and softens the remainder by diffusion. Whether festooned on the Christmas tree or used to decorate the room or table, these fascinating little lamps add a touch of light and color that harmonizes with the yuletide spirit.”

The early figural lamps were made by mouth blowing the heated end of a tube of glass into a two part mold. Once the glass has cooled somewhat, the mold halves were separated and the glass figure removed and annealed (heated again and then cooled, to make the glass less brittle). Once the figure was prepared, either a filament assembly or a complete tubular light bulb was inserted and sealed. The units were then painted.

Here are some pages out of a late 1920s German “Fancy Lamp” catalog, containing many general purpose and highly decorative lamps. Also note the two pictures of suggested uses for these miniature lights- in scenes built into a box lid and also in small hanging baskets of lighted fruit. Most of the particular lights shown here are quite hard to find today, and are highly collectible. They are wonderful examples of the fine German craftsmanship of the era. The Jack O’ Lantern is particularly rare, as are some of the standing figures. All examples are hand painted clear glass. Except for the rose in the lower right hand corner of the first picture, the rest of the lamps in that group are standard base (regular household) size bulbs. Uses for these larger lamps included hallway, front door and wall fixtures.

As the sales of the popular little lights grew at a dramatic pace, other companies such as The American Eveready Company and General Electric offered figural lights of their own. Identical in many ways to their European counterparts, there has been much discussion as to whether or not the American companies made the entire lamp themselves. Both companies claimed “domestic manufacture” in their literature,  but the possibility exists that they imported the molded clear glass envelopes, inserted domestic filament and base assemblies and painted them in the United States.  Research is ongoing, and complicating the fact is that the production and manufacturing records from this time period no longer exist in the General Electric archives.  In any case, by 1919, American Eveready was no longer manufacturing lights and General Electric archives do show that the company had switched to 100% American made machine blown lights in their plant in Cleveland, Ohio.

Here are pictures of a catalog insert that was included in the 1918 issue of the American Ever Ready Works catalog. It shows many beautiful figural lights that the company offered, including several that are extremely rare today (the Indian head, two faced boy and witch in particular).

All of these lamps are carbon filament examples, and were hand painted in soft, beautiful colors. Later figural lamps offered for sale to the public would not have the beautiful paint and sharp details that the early examples exhibit. The catalog is small, measuring only 6″ x 9″ when open, and is printed on a type of newspaper stock, unusual for catalogs of this time period. Typical catalogs were more often printed on glossy paper. Also, there is an inconsistency in the catalog, as the cover states that the lamps pictured within were made to operate on 100-120 volts, while the page describing the various groups of lights available says that they are made to operate on 110-120 volts.


The First Electric Trees

In 1903, the famous General Electric Company was the very first to offer a prewired lighting outfit to the American public. My research shows that the outfit contained festoons (strings of light sockets) manufactured by the American Eveready Company, and lamps manufactured by the Edison Decorative and Miniature Lamp Department of General Electric. Although quite capable of doing so, I strongly suspect that GE did not make their own strings in the beginning as Eveready was trying to patent a string of sockets themselves, and rather than challenge the patent, GE chose simply to buy the strings from that company. The set had a 50 foot cord with an attachment device that allowed the user to simply screw the set into a nearby lamp or ceiling light. GE offered the set with eight, sixteen, 24 or 32 sockets, with each festoon of eight attached to the outfit by means of a junction box.

Shortly after GE offered this outfit, the courts ruled against The American Eveready Company’s patent filings, stating that their string of prewired sockets was based on knowledge that “any ordinary wireman would possess” and therefore not patentable. GE soon began offering this outfit with green porcelain sockets and a junction box of their own manufacture.