22 December 2012

22 December - Electric Christmas Lights

Sweet Clip Art

Weather - Ember Day - the weather today indicates the weather of March

Sometime around this date in 1882, probably a few days or even a week previous, Edward H. Johnson of New York, Vice President of Edison Electric Lamp Company, invited a journalist friend from the local New York Daily Tribune to his Manhattan home to view a little something he had rigged up.  That little something was a Christmas tree hung with colored light bulbs and turning on a little wooden box.

The journalist, William A. Croffut (1835 – 1915), knew both Edward Johnson and Thomas Edison well – he had been reporting on Edison and all his works from 1878 and may have been responsible for dubbing him “the Wizard of Menlo Park”.   This is his account of his visit to Johnson’s home:

Johnson's Christmas Tree, 12/25/1882
“Last evening I walked over beyond Fifth Avenue and called at the residence of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison’s electric company.  There, at the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect.  It was brilliantly lighted with many colored globes about as large as an English walnut and was turning some six times a minute on a little pine box.  There were eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red, and blue.  As the tree turned, the colors alternated, all the lamps going out and being relit at every revolution.  The result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white, blue, white, red, blue – all evening.”

“I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight – one can hardly imagine anything prettier.  The ceiling was crossed obliquely with two wires on which were hung 28 more of the tiny lights; and all the lights and the fantastic tree itself with its starry fruit were kept going by the slight electric current brought from the main office on a filmy wire.  The tree was kept revolving by a little hidden crank below the floor which was turned by electricity.  It was a superb exhibition.”

The Detroit Post and Tribune, a weekly illustrated paper which published on Fridays, ran this story in their December 22, 1882 edition.  Croffut, while working for the New York Daily Tribune, kept up a correspondence with newspapers in about fifteen different states, and the Detroit newspaper may have been one of them [note: the phrase “our foreign correspondent” or “our correspondent in New York” did not mean that the journalist in question was employed solely by that particular newspaper.]  Of course, the Post and Tribune might also have used the not-altogether-unknown method of cribbing stories from other newspapers. 

In any case, because it seems to be the only remaining published account of the first Christmas tree lights, every article written on the subject repeats that “Croffut” was a reporter from Detroit, sometimes embellishing the story that he was visiting family in New York, that he was a young reporter [Croffut was 47], and that he alone responded to Mr. Johnson’s general invitation, while the local papers unaccountably ignored it.  Well, like incorrect family trees which everyone copies without checking to see if the information is correct, this little myth will remain part of Christmas-tree-light history, to be repeated over and over again.

For more information on the history of Christmas lights (and loads of pictures) check out Old Christmas Tree Lights, a delightful website dedicated to the twinkling, glowing lighted decor of Christmas Trees.

In honor of Johnson’s invention, make these Cute Sugar Cookie Lights from busylittleelf.  The instructions sound very easy, and if you have several Cook’s Helpers underfoot, they can separate the candies into piles of different colors.  (Impress upon the Cook’s Helpers that they are not to dispose of any candies until after the cookies are made]

Remember, the 12 Days of Christmas are coming up, when you will have the pledges of your affection home from school looking for things to do.  Baking Christmas cookies is a good group project.