Washtenaw County Historical Society
  Go to Related Society

Contact Us

Current Exhibit
Past Exhibits


Change Font Size:
Increase font size Decrease font size Restore default font size
 Christmas Decorations 1900-1960

This exhibit at the Museum on Main Street covers the use of lights, ornaments and trees popular in this county and this country from 1900 to the 1960s. Trees, ornaments and lights from the collection and on loan will be highlighted as well as reproductions of ornaments not readily available. The different periods of holiday decoration will be presented by use of the Society’s collection of toys, clothing and dollhouses. We will feature some of our new acquisitions in this exhibit. This exhibit was researched with the help of our new volunteer, Carolyn Mitchell.

Glow Ray Bulb

Our open house will be held on Sunday, December 10th, 2006 at 2:00 pm with a presentation about “Christmas Collectables” by certified appraiser of antiques, Dale Sirkle. Dale will talk about our display as well as bring examples of lights, trees and ornaments from his own collection. This talk is open to the public and all are welcome.

Colors: The history of the colors of Christmas date back to the “Paradise Tree” of 11th century Europe. The color white represented Innocence, Red (the apple) knowledge and green the fir tree.

Ornaments: The first account we have of a decorated tree with ornaments in a home was 1605 in Strasbourg, Germany. The use of ornaments on a real tree spread in Germany with cookies, bread and nuts serving as decoration. Small gifts also made their way to the branches of these “Sugar Trees.”

Trees: The use of the Christmas tree was brought with German immigrants to the United States. In the 1880s, Ladies Home Journal cover of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert(German) caught the social eye of the public and decorated trees became “the thing.”

The glass ornaments of Lausha, Germany were seen by F.W. Woolworth who brought them to his Five and Dime stores in the early 1900s. The appeal of these colorful glass ornaments took hold with the American public.

Lights: Christmas trees were rarely lighted in America before 1900 by either candles or electricity. Some families in large cities used candles or glass candle cups (also called Fairy Lights) for decoration. The tree was kept in a room behind closed doors until Christmas Eve. The candles were lit and only then was the door opened so that the children could see the tree.

Lighting a tree with candles or electricity wasn't common even during the prosperous Roaring Twenties. Only after World War II did a lighted Christmas tree become universal in America.

Early Electric Christmas Lighting in America

The world's first practical light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison in 1879. In 1882, an associate of his, Edward Johnson, is credited with electrically lighting a Christmas tree for the first time. The tree was set up in the parlour of his New York City home in the first section of that city to be wired for electricity.

In 1895, President Grover Cleveland displayed the first Christmas tree lighted electrically in the White House. It was a magnificent tree with more than 100 multicolored lights. This event generated enough publicity that members of "high society" began hosting Christmas tree parties. This remained a pastime for the rich since a typical lighted tree cost upwards of $300 (over $2000 today), including a generator and the services of a wireman.

Electric Christmas Lights 1900-1920

Early homes were wired for ceiling or wall lighting only, and the only way to tap into the electric power circuit was through a light fixture socket. Strings of lights, or festoons, were attached to heavy porcelain and later, composition plastic sockets. "Lamp" was the term used in Edison 's time for all forms of electric lights (light bulb is a fairly recent term). The "lamps" in each festoon were pear-shaped clear glass or clear glass painted in various colors. Only more expensive lamps were made of colored glass, and some were "frosted" by dipping clear glass in acid. Later lamps were produced in globe shapes.

World War I closed the import market to the United States. Since electric Christmas tree lights were becoming popular in the United States, an enterprising man named Louis Szel went to Japan in 1917 to start the industry there and teach the technique to laborers.

Concurrently, the General Electric Company began developing filaments made of a fragile metal called "tungsten" for household light bulbs around 1910. This material was superior to carbon—it burned cooler and longer, used less current, produced a whiter light, and provided consistent light output from lamp to lamp. General Electric called these lamps "Mazda" after the Persian god of light, Athura Mazda, and they became the standard for the industry. Around 1920, General Electric commissioned the famous painter, Maxfield Parrish, to create advertising for the Mazda lights.

The Roaring Twenties, 1921-1929

American Christmas tree lighting came into its own in the early part of the 1920s. The public embraced the idea of lighting trees electrically, and many more towns and cities were wired for electricity. By 1930, most homes were wired for the now standard two-bladed wall plugs, making decorating with electric lights more convenient.

In 1927, General Electric produced its first ets of outdoor Christmas light bulbs. The earliest lights were round, but by 1928 they became the familiar flame or swirled shape. Also, the early lamps were painted on the outside, but later versions featured scratchproof interior paint. These lights are still made today.

Round Light Bulbs

In tune with the times, General Electric and Edison Electric sponsored many "decorating with color-light" contests in an effort to increase sales of the new product. The strategy worked, and within several years communities across the country were holding competitions at Christmas.

The Depression Years, 1930-1940

By 1930, Americans were feeling the full effect of the stock market crash in 1929. Most people had little or no money for unnecessary luxuries such as Christmas tree lights, so they either went without or made do with old sets.

As the Depression dragged on, Christmas lights sales were half of what they had been at the beginning of the decade. Lighting companies introduced a large variety of new designs and novelty lights in an attempt to spur sales. Most of these lights were of Japanese manufacture, with one remarkable exception. About 1932, the Matchless Company introduced Matchless Stars, beautiful solid glass ornaments surrounding a brighter than normal lamp. The glass points and crystal center were imported from Czechoslovakia and assembled in the United States. Due to their high cost and economic conditions, they were only moderate sellers. After World War II, when Czech glass was no longer available, they were manufactured with Lucite until the Matchless Company ceased producing them in the 1950s.

The War Years, 1941-1948

In October 1941, NOMA issued their product catalogue featuring several new products, including an illuminated tree top angel. The company was set for a heavy selling year when disaster struck. On December 7, 1941 , the Japanese attacked the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor , and the next day President Roosevelt declared war on Japan.

The war had an immediate and drastic effect on Christmas light manufacturing and sales. Most American companies turned their production lines over to whatever they could produce that would help the war effort. Metals of all types were in short supply, and no electric Christmas lights were made during the war years. Sets in warehouse storage were sold as long as they lasted, and after that Americans made do with old sets just as they had done during the Depression.

Artwork used on boxes became more somber, using less color to save on precious supplies. In addition, wartime boxes were of thinner construction than those made earlier.

After the War Years, 1946-1950

With the world at peace, American Christmas celebrations became grander and grander. Lighting companies took a year to achieve full production again, but by 1946 they were able to offer many innovative lighting outfits, plus old standbys.

The most famous innovation of the period was the bubble light. Although they were invented in the late 1930s, they could not be produced until 1946 due to the Depression and World War II. NOMA first mass-marketed their Bubble Lites in 1946. The lights consisted of a glass tube filled with a chemical called methylene chloride and a plastic base that holds a light bulb in close contact with the tube. The units bubble whenever heated, and the chemical has such a low boiling point that it will even bubble from the heat of a hand or sunlight from a window.

Bubble Lite

The 1960s

The trend toward ever larger and grander Christmas celebrations continued through the 1960s. Two noteworthy innovations occurred during this era, miniature or quot;fairy" lights and aluminum Christmas trees.

"Fairy" lights were introduced from Italy in the late 1950s and swept the country in the 1960s. The design and construction improved until they became the accepted form of Christmas lighting to this day.

In 1959, the Aluminum Specialty Company introduced the first aluminum Christmas tree. One of their toy sales managers, Tom Gannon, came up with the idea and it was an immediate success. Other companies soon began to produce aluminum trees which were popular until the late 1960s. Due to the extreme danger of using electric lights on highly-conductive aluminum tree branches, rotating multi-colored floodlights, called color wheels, were sold to illuminate the trees.

The trees lost popularity just as quickly as they had gained it, due in part to a well-received television cartoon, the Charlie Brown Christmas Show in 1965. Charlie Brown refused to buy an aluminum Christmas tree, and the American public decided that he was right.

Other decorations include lighted figures and novelty items that were introduced to the American public almost as soon as Christmas lights. Some examples are candles, wreaths, angels, and Santa Claus, among other figures. Lighted table top trees were also an important line for most Christmas lighting companies from the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Jump to top of page  Top Link to this page  Link to this page