What would Christmas be without lights? The warm glow of the Yule log in the fireplace; the flickering candlelight on the festively-decorated table; the lights twinkling along the eaves and in the shrubbery outside? And, of course, the bejeweled evergreen in the living room, surrounded by gifts.
Evergreen trees have been used in pagan and religious rituals since ancient times, but 16th century Germany is credited with introducing the Christmas tree as we know it. Those early trees were decorated with fruit and nuts, with candles (when they could be afforded) providing the requisite illumination.
The use of candles on Christmas trees continued with little change for the next three hundred years. By the 19th century some candles were being placed in glass balls that could be hung from the branches of the tree, while others - somewhat resembling colorful crystal votives - contained a wick floating in a small amount oil on water.
An unfortunate consequence of the use of candles was the increase in the number of fires, (What do you get when you have small flames hovering over desiccated tree limbs? A torch.) and it was common to have a bucket of sand or water at hand, just in case. By 1885, when a candle set a Christmas tree on fire and burned down a hospital in Chicago, some insurers were beginning to press for the widespread adoption of contract clauses excluding fires caused by holiday decorations.
It was about this time, in 1882, that Edward Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, created the first electric string Christmas lights. Though the lights were somewhat unreliable and the bulbs themselves generated enough heat to ignite extremely dry boughs, the strings represented an improvement in safety. Unfortunately, they were relatively expensive, so it was not until the 1920s that advancements in design and productivity finally made them more affordable for the average household. Even then, string lights did not experience widespread acceptance until the mid-century.
The period following World War II witnessed a boom in the use of tree lights. From the late '40s through the '90s, incandescent bulbs were king. As prices continued to decline for the traditional strings of regular C7 and C9 bulbs, manufacturers like GE, Sylvania, and NOMA appealed to consumers with twinkle lights, round C7 fluorescent strings, lights with reflectors, and innovative designs like the Bubble lights that are so popular with collectors today.
Vintage strings in good working order and complete with packaging are commanding premium prices, while especially desirable Bubble lights often fetch up to several hundred dollars per set. Have salvageable parts from broken Bubble sets in your possession? Don't toss them! Collectors are willing to pay good prices to be able to repair the sets they have.
Just as the introduction of low-wattage mini lights in the early 1970s eliminated competition from other types of incandescents, so now is the revolutionary, even-more-economical-to-operate LED (light emitting diode) string quickly supplanting incandescents. Will the mini lights of yesterday become the hot new collectible of tomorrow? Only time will tell.
If you'd like to find out more about this collectible, check out the resources listed below, and
Merry Christmas (Happy Holidays)!
Christmas 1940-1959 - A Collector's Guide to Decorations and Customs, by Robert Brenner
Christmas 1960-Present - A Collector's Guide to Decorations and Customs, by Robert Brenner
Collector's Encyclopedia of Electric Christmas Lighting, by Cindy Chipps and Greg Olson
Pictorial Guide to Christmas Ornaments and Collectibles, by George Johnson
A Brief History of Christmas Lights (Popular Mechanics) - Nicely illustrated.
How the Insurance Industry Tried to Ban Christmas (Bloomberg) - Not really, but Bah! Humbug! anyway.
Old Christmas Tree Lights - For the new and experienced collector alike, this wonderful site includes a multitude of articles, pics, links, more.
The Yule Lights Collection - Site focuses on the post-WWII era (1950s up to the 1980s) before the popularization of miniature light sets. Sections include Tree Toppers, Bubble Lights, and Bulb Identification.
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