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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Strand o’ Lights

Air Date: Week of December 5, 2003

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Tis the season for lights, as millions of people string up elaborate displays in anticipation of the holidays. The tradition dates back one hundred years, when the first set of wired Christmas lights came on the market. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Bill Nelson, a collector of antique holiday bulbs, from his home in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's hard to imagine a Christmas without light displays these days. We put them on trees, on houses, even on pickup trucks. But it hasn't always been this way. The first set of wired Christmas lights was sold exactly 100 years ago. Joining me from Knoxville, Tennessee is Bill Nelson. He’ s a collector of antique holiday bulbs. Bill, tell me about that first set of Christmas lights.

NELSON: They were actually sold by General Electric. They were made out of very heavy cloth-covered wire and had miniature porcelain sockets. And it was very difficult to handle. It was expensive. Cost $24, which was an average person's weekly pay.

CURWOOD: How safe were these things?

NELSON: The first ones were actually not too safe for two reasons. Number one, the bulbs burned hot enough to ignite paper or a Christmas tree and the other problem was that the wires were so heavy that when they went into the sockets they often broke off.

CURWOOD: Now one thing that I'm told is that Christmas lights became popular even before they were sold to the general public. How could that happen?

NELSON: What happened was that a vice president of Thomas Edison put some light bulbs on a tree actually as a publicity stunt. The social elite at the time picked up on this. It became a status symbol. They would have what were called "Christmas tree parties" where they would light a tree from top to bottom, which was extremely expensive in those days.

CURWOOD: Ordinary folks like us, we had what, candles on our trees?

NELSON: Exactly. Candles or nothing at all. In those days, Santa Claus brought the Christmas tree. When the children awoke they were kept away from the tree until the parents had actually lit the candles. Then the candles were then put out because they were so dangerous.

CURWOOD: I gotta ask you this one because this drives me crazy [LAUGTHER]. When you get those lights you know just one goes out and the whole thing goes out?

NELSON: Exactly.

CURWOOD: Why did they make it so that if one went out they would all go out.

NELSON: Well, it was to reduce the burning temperature of the lamps. They had lights that would run on 120 volts, but they burned so hot, they were extremely dangerous. So the only technology they had in those days was to make technology that would reduce voltage. So they took the voltage and divided it by the number of lights. And that reduced the temperature very dramatically.

CURWOOD: I bet if I came to your house in Knoxville, Tennessee I’d get quite a display.

[LAUGHTER]

NELSON: You would indeed. We have a Christmas tree up in every room, usually decorated for a particular decade. We’ve got one up for the fifties and one for the forties one for the thirties.

CURWOOD: The fifties? What do they have an Elvis thing hanging?

[LAUGHTER]

NELSON: The fifties have a lot of unusual colored lights. That’s when the non-traditional colors because popular – like pink. Things like that.

CURWOOD: Bill Nelson decorates his trees this holiday season in Knoxville, Tennessee. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

NELSON: I appreciate it. I enjoyed it very much.

[MUSIC: Vince Guaraldi Trio “Skating” A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (Fantasy – 1988)]

 

Links

Bill Nelson’s website

 

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