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.

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