Old Christmas tree lights still functional, decorative and collectible

Antique Detective

by Anne Gilbert

These days we take the lighting of the White House Christmas tree as a given. However, it was a spectacular event in 1895 when President Grover Cleveland officially had the first electrically lighted White House Christmas tree displayed. Suddenly the general public discovered a new, safe way to light their Christmas trees. A new industry was born.   

Bubble lights.

The Christmas tree lights we take for granted have come a long way since they first lit up a window on a Christmas tree in Thomas Edison's' shop on 136th street in New York City. It all began in 1882, when Edward Hibberd Johnson, an inventor employed by Edison, had a bright idea. These days we'd say, "A light bulb went off in their head." He hand-wired 80 red, white and blue bulbs and strung them around the trunk of the tree. They were powered by a separate generator.

Prior to that occasion, Christmas trees were lighted with candles inserted in metal clips – a dangerous practice that caused many fires. Over the decades not only did the materials used in making Christmas tree lights evolve, but also their shapes and sizes changed dramatically.

When I first began researching the history, I found a website that listed "Old Christmas tree lights museum." I discovered it wasn't a bricks and mortar museum, but strictly a website. There was no curator to interview, only some research done by dedicated collectors, Bill and Bob Nelson, now deceased. Fortunately they did a good job, so here is the history.

Boxed Mazda Lamps, Japanese circa 1930. (photo PicClic)

Since electricity was expensive at the turn of the last century few except the wealthy could afford it, much less to light a Christmas tree. In fact, what family even considered it? A string of pear-shaped lights in brass sockets the size of shot glasses were priced at $12. In today's market that would be about $350.     

In 1901 the first commercially available light set became available to businesses in order to attract customers. Then in 1903 General Electric offered the first sets of pre-wired lights to the public. By 1906 figural Christmas tree lights were imported from Germany and Austria.

Christmas lights became more decorative in 1910 when General Electric changed their bulbs from pear-shaped to round with an exhaust tip at the top, and contained carbon filaments. However by 1912 GE began using tungsten filaments that had longer lives.

Boxed Mickey Mouse lights, c. 1930s, priced at $275. (photo PicClic)

In 1919 once again the shape of the Christmas tree light bulb changed to a flame or cone shape.
Of interest to today's collectors are the milk glass figural bulbs made in Japan beginning in 1922. Paint adhered to milk glass and they were cheaper than the German and Austrian figurals. Because they were machine-made they cost less, adding to their appeal.

Many of the figural lights were copied from early German figural ornaments.
An exciting new decorative concept were the "Wonder Star" lights. In the 1930s by the Matchless Electric Company in Chicago. They were made of colorful glass combinations, hand cut in Czechoslovakia. Collectors hang them as ornaments today.          

In the 1920s "bubble lights" became a popular competitor edging out the "Wonder Star" lights. Originally made in the 1920s by Telsen Electric in England.

Matchess star.

In 1936, Carl Otis, an accountant for Montgomery Ward invented the Bubble Light. However, Noma Electric received a patent in the United States shortly afterwards. They lost their popularity when miniature "Fairy" lights were introduced.

After World War II, in 1955, "twinkling lights" became trendy.

What can you do if you if you have a string of old Christmas tree lights and want to use them? You can check out the website, Kilokat's Antique Light Bulb Site (www.bulbcollector.com). Check eBay for specific categories, such as bubble lights. Collectors also can find replacements for burned out bulbs online.

Or, just hang the figurals as ornaments. Who knows what the next invention will be.


Christmas ornaments depicted religious symbols and popular culture

Whether they were hand-blown glass, cardboard or tin, early Christmas ornaments reflected not only religious symbols but also popular culture in fashion, travel, famous people including national leaders, movie stars and cartoon characters.

Dresden train and tunnel sold for $10,000. (Bertolia Auctions)

For example, Charlie Chaplin was depicted in Christmas ornaments. In Germany, collectors can still find plenty of representations of King Ludwig II in glass ornaments. All of the Disney characters were early cartoon ornaments. The first seven U.S. astronauts were became subjects of ornaments. 

For collectors of Christmas ornaments, trimming the holiday tree has become something of a ritual that can bring together the quaint, blown-glass Victorian balloons and their garbed travelers with a 1930s replica of the Hindenburg zeppelin and a 1960s plastic astronaut figure. These, along with traditional angels and Santas, had their origins in the small German village of Lauscha in the 19th century.

Creating glass ornaments became a cottage industry in Lauscha. However, because of high demand for the product, the industry grew significantly in order to supply America and other countries, creating a large market for German hand-blown glass ornaments. Germany was the chief supplier until 1939, and the onslaught of World War II.

Glass slipper.

Historically, the first blown ornaments from Lauscha were made in 1870 by blowing a bubble
of glass into a pinecone-shaped cookie mold. At first, peddlers sold the ornaments, but in a few years they began to be exported to America. By 1889 hundreds of different shapes were mold-blown and bought in quantity by F.W. Woolworth and other mass marketers in the United States.

They were sold for five and ten cents in the Woolworth store in Lancaster, PA. It is reported that during the next several years Woolworth sold more than $25 million worth of these ornaments. Because of their fragility only a fraction are still in existence.                                             

What first were simple Christmas images, the designs soon evolved to become fruit, animals
and a variety of birds. However, collectors considered the most interesting and rare to be those made in molds depicting events and
fashions of the times.

Among the most charming, and expensive are
the balloon-shaped ornaments. Most were made
in the 1890s when balloon ascensions became popular in Europe and America. Wire-tinsel mesh ropes gave a realistic look to the balloon glass
and a variety of embossed, lithographic cutouts, such as Santa, children and angels were the usual passengers in the balloon's gondola.

When public interest turned to the latest development in transportation, the automobile, small car ornaments replaced the balloon in the early 20th century. As the appearance of railway transportation changed, the locomotive ornament became a diesel train. By the 1920s, traveling on ocean liners had become the fashion, along with sailing. These were also turned into ornaments.

Just as the fashions in travel changed, so did women's dress. Ornaments appeared as parasols, trimmed with thin wire and a tassel for fashionable Victorian ladies, along with cardboard slippers that hung from cloth bags that could hold tiny stocking stuffers. The parasols continued to be reproduced from 1946 on in Italy and West Germany. In the 1920s, the "flapper" era, blown-glass head ornaments with bobbed hair and cloche hats hung from Christmas trees.

In times of war, military and patriotic ornaments trimmed trees. Among the rarities would be a Prussian officers helmet. Another would be a figure of Uncle Sam made from the late 19th to early 20th century. More simplified patriotic ornaments were torpedo shaped and painted with red, white and blue stripes.     

German glass ornaments. (Lorraine Elmore collection)

Popular personalities from cartoon characters to celebrities became subjects. When Theodore Roosevelt was president, a teddy bear ornament was a popular item; an expensive and hard-to-find ornament these days. Movie stars such as Mary Pickford, the Keystone Cops, Charlie Chaplin and Al Jolson, as well as early Disney cartoon characters, found their way on to Christmas trees. Once made in quantity, early versions are high priced and scarce.

Surprisingly, some of the most valuable ornaments aren't made of glass but of such humble materials as cardboard, silver foil and cotton. Considered as miniature works of art, ornaments of silver and gold embossed cardboard were made between 1880 and 1910 in the Dresden-Leipzig areas of Germany. Though most were from two to three inches in size, they are highly detailed.

They are known as Dresden ornaments. Often made in several pieces, the designs were stamped in minute detail. Such finishing touches as silk threads were added as a coachman's reins; a ball of cotton became a billow of smoke from a locomotive. Such a Dresden coachman ornament can cost $700 in a shop. They too depicted trends in fashion and travel.  

Anne Gilbert has been self-syndicating the Antique Detective to such papers as the Chicago Sun Times and the Miami Herald since 1983. She has authored nine books on antiques, collectibles and art and appeared on national TV. She has done appraisals for museums and private individuals.