Saturday, December 22, 2012

Of Christmas Trees, Candles, and Electric Lights

Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds in Holiday Inn, 1942
Lars and Anders were watching Holiday Inn for the first time this morning, enjoying the silver screen shenanigans of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.  Anders, my snappy dresser, especially enjoyed Fred Astaire -- dancing in TUXEDOS?!  What's not to love? 

I was startled when I noticed that the Christmas tree in this scene was lit by actual CANDLES.  In 1942?  Didn't they have electric Christmas tree lights by then?

First Electrified Christmas Tree, 1882
Well, my curiosity was piqued, so I did a little online research and found that, although Edward Johnson, Vice President of Edison Electric Company, first wired up electric lights on a Christmas tree in his home in 1882 as a publicity stunt, the majority of American Christmas trees continued to be lit by candles for another half century.  Wealthy people began electrifying Christmas trees for their parties around the turn of the century, but not only did this require hiring electricians to individually string and wire bulbs together, but they also needed to be hooked up to generators.  The first pre-strung lights weren't introduced for sale until after 1917, but even then they were so expensive that some department stores rented them rather than selling them outright. 

Still, Holiday Inn was made in 1942, and it was a big Hollywood studio production -- surely they could afford electric lights for their sets, right?  So here's the really interesting part, the part I knew but had forgotten: The introduction of electricity was confined to urban areas for decades, creating huge disparity between the lifestyles of city dwellers versus the millions of Americans who lived in rural areas.  This was because the power companies paid to create the infrastructure necessary for providing electricity, and it just didn't make good business sense to spend a lot of money running wiring to rural areas that were sparsely populated, with so many fewer potential customers.  It wasn't until after World War II that the majority of Americans had electrical power in their homes -- so, in 1942, the Christmas Trees in "rural Connecticut" absolutely would have been lit by candles, because the farm-turned-inn and the entire town of Midville, Connecticut would have still been without electricity at that time. 

If you're interested in reading more about the history of electric Christmas lights, I found the most complete history here from the NECA National Electrical Contractors Association.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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