Before about 1900, trees were lit with wax candles—a dangerous tradition that caused deadly house fires every season.
But in 1882, Edward Johnson, a VP for Thomas Edison, came up with an idea: He put a string of 80 twinkling electric lights—colored red, white, and blue with crepe paper—around his own Christmas tree in his Fifth Avenue home.
His electric lights attracted media attention and became a sensation among the wealthy.
But most people still had a mistrust of electricity in their homes (or perhaps they couldn’t afford this new technology) and stuck to candles.
Sadacca, a teenager whose family owned a lighting company in the city, was reportedly horrified by a 1917 New York fire sparked by candles on a Christmas tree.
He suggested that his family manufacture colored strings of light to be sold as tree decorations. By the 1920s, the idea had caught on.
[Top photo: Christmas tree at the Greenwich settlement house at Hudson Park; bottom, kids holding hands around a tree, both from the NYPL digital collection]