Boomers Watched the Evolution of Christmas Lights

The Boomer Era was host to any number of innovations that helped to create the technological landscape we inhabit today. In our parents’ rush to the future after the War, there was an effort to pick up life where they left off prior to 1941, but the bug of progress tugged at their core. By the time the 1950s arrived, virtually everything was thought to be improvable by modernization — including holiday decorations.

It was the Victorian era when electric Christmas tree lights were first used on indoor Christmas trees, and that started in the domain of the wealthy in 1882. Thomas Edison was beginning his push to electrify every household in America, but it was slow going as he literally built up the country’s electric power plants in the process. A vice president of the Edison Electric Company, Edward H. Johnson, asked Edison to make electric lights for his Christmas tree. Edison’s team came up with a hand-wired string of 80 red, white and blue walnut-sized light bulbs for Johnson’s New York City mansion. Since there was no electric appliance market at the time, there were no wall sockets to plug lights into. All lights were hard-wired into the house’s electric box. Years later, companies would make adapters that screwed into the ceiling bulb sockets.

Some say the whole thing was just a publicity stunt on the part of Edison to further his business. Whether that is the truth or Johnson’s bright idea, Johnson has become known as the Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights. Businesses became the first adopters of electric Christmas lighting; by 1900, strings of lights were seen in window displays. General Electric became the first company to sell an electric light set to consumers in 1903. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until 1930 that electric lights replaced traditional candles on the tree in most people’s homes.
NOMA (National Outfit Manufacturers Association) was incorporated as the NOMA Electric Company in 1926, and began selling light sets out of their New York City base. Though GE was first to market in 1903, NOMA lights were very popular in the boomer years. Mister B recalls his aunt and uncle having the NOMA bubble lights on their tree, which one might say was a precursor to the lava lamp.

For the next couple of decades people struggled with the lights, which were notorious for being difficult to troubleshoot. If one light burned out — they were incandescent bulbs, after all — the whole string would not light because it was wired in a series circuit. It was a trial-and-error process to replace each one to find the bulb or bulbs that had burned out. Boomers born before 1960 probably recall Christmas lights stretched out on their living room floors, their fathers recruiting them into helping to find the burned out bulbs before stringing them on the tree.

For most of us, this was our first experience with Christmas tree lights. The bulbs were painted glass tear-drop shapes, about 3 inches long. The colors were highly saturated shades of red, blue, green, yellow and orange. When outdoor varieties of this same style of lights became more available as the 1950s turned into the 1960s, homeowners took to stringing them on their suburban houses, most notably along the eaves line at the base of the roof. Many boomers, including Mister B, recall their families driving around town to look at the houses lit up in their holiday colors.

Meanwhile, back indoors, innovation continued for electric Christmas tree lights. Boomers will recall the advent of the miniature bulb in the early 1960s. Less than half the size of the earlier bulb, they often twinkled as the light was refracted by plastic appendages affixed at the base of it, or surrounding each tiny bulb. Some lights blinked on and off when a special bulb was plugged in at the front of the string. Many boomers found these bulbs more attractive than the strings of lights their parents had been using for decades. In the Boomer household, it was Mister B’s sister who first suggested the family give the miniature lights a try in the early 1960s. Like many boomers, Sister Boomer found the old lights garish as the magic of a Victorian-style Christmas glow gave way to a Mid-Century Modern twinkle. The bulbs were a success and the large, old string of bulbs was relegated to the wooden box that held Christmas decorations in the basement.

The real innovation came in the 1960s when electric Christmas tree lights began to be sold with shunts in them that stopped the entire string from staying dark if one bulb was burned out. For the first time, the parents of boomers could plug in the string of lights and immediately see the bulb that needed replacing. If more than one bulb was burned out, however, the string would still remain dark. Mister B recalls it was much easier to find the culprits on these miniature strings, though, because the tiny glass tubes were translucent colored glass, where the earlier bulbs were painted on the inside with opaque colors. This allowed a visual inspection to see the broken filaments and any scorch marks inside the bulbs.

Today LED lights are becoming the next phase of electric Christmas tree light evolution. The colors are deep, the strings are more energy efficient, they do not get hot and are said to be better for the environment. Mister B has purchased a string of these lights, and finds them aesthetically pleasing. Yet he does feel a twinge of nostalgia this time of year for both the old-fashioned big bulbs and the miniature bulbs of our boomer era. Each year when the family Christmas tree was up (usually by mid-December), he and his siblings would turn off the living room lights and lie down under at the base, staring up into its branches. They could bask in the glow of the holiday lights, absorbing the magic of the color illuminating the tree’s interior structure and making boomer memories of Christmases past.

Which lights won out in your boomer household, or did your family stick with the color wheel shining on the aluminum tree?

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