History I Never Knew: The First Lighted Christmas Tree

According to Smithsonian magazine, strings of Christmas lights brighten up the December evenings of about 80 million homes in America. They account for six percent of the nation’s electrical load during that month.

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Edward Hibberd Johnson

Seems like there have always been Christmas tree lights, but that’s not so. For a few years, starting in 1882, there was only one lighted Christmas tree in America. It was at the home of Edward Hibberd Johnson, 136 East 36th Street, New York. This is the rest of the story.

Johnson was the president of the Edison Company for Electric Lighting. That company was founded by Thomas Edison, whose goal was to provide illumination for the streets of New York.  Johnson was a sharp guy and a go-getter – “part businessman, part engineer, part Barnum” as Smithsonian puts it. He had been manager of the Automatic Telegraph Company in the years following the Civil War.

Johnson hired the 24-year-old Edison in 1871. He quickly saw what a brilliant prodigy Edison was, and when Edison left to form his own company, Johnson followed and went to work for him. Johnson’s job was to find ways to market Edison’s inventions. The first of these was the phonograph, invented in 1877. Johnson took the machine on tour and charged people to listen to it.

The Edison Lamp Company was born in 1880 after Edison secured a patent on the light bulb. The two of them along with other investors, launched it after raising $35,000 in seed capital. It would be some years before electrical power was widely available, but Johnson and Edison were on their way.

By the time that the Edison company was founded, Christmas trees were already an established tradition, albeit a relatively new one. In 1841, Queen Victoria’s husband Albert introduced the Christmas tree to Britain – the “tannenbaum” of German origin.  In 1856, a Christmas tree appeared in the White House during the presidency of Franklin Pierce.

The practice of bringing a Christmas tree, decorated with pretty ornaments, spread rapidly. The nicest looking trees were the ones that were lighted – with candles. Real candles. Quite a fire hazard.

Then Johnson had an idea. Why not replace the candles with electric light bulbs? Bingo.

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The first lighted Christmas tree, 1882

He set up a tree in his front window and hand-wired 80 red, white, and blue light bulbs in six separate strings connected by copper bands. The connections could open and close as the tree rotated on a base that was powered by a small dynamo, also invented by Edison.

Johnson then went out and solicited coverage from the media and got a glowing, effusive article from W.C. Croffut of the Detroit Free Press, who wrote, “..it was brilliantly lighted with…eighty lights all encased in these dainty glass eggs…one can hardly imagine anything prettier.”

Crowds flocked to 36th Street to see Johnson’s tree each year. In 1884, he had 120 lights on the tree. The display wasn’t cheap – $12 for the lights alone, which would be about $350 in today’s money.  In 1894, president Grover Cleveland had the first lighted Christmas tree in the White House.   And the price of the lights rapidly came down to affordable levels. By 1914, a string of lights cost $1.75.

But it all began with that “Miracle on 36th Street.” Now you know the rest of the story.

One Response to “History I Never Knew: The First Lighted Christmas Tree”

  1. Karin Lidbeck Says:

    So interesting, Edward Johnson is my great great grandfather, I am always looking for family history and more information about him and his family. thanks,

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