The Gallery is closed through June 2, 2020. Follow us online or pick up History to Go!

Pick up History to Go at our front door.

Merry and Bright: History Behind Christmas Lights

If you have been out and about in Anderson County this past week, you may have noticed that it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Businesses have put out their displays, homes are strewn with colorful lights and reindeer in the lawns, and the Electric City will hold its official tree lighting tonight! It is, indeed, a fond time of year for children and adults alike, in large part because of the magnificence of electric lights.

                The first ever strand of electric lights was invented by the esteemed Thomas Edison in 1880. His name was already coming to be synonymous with direct current electricity and he worked for years to bring the new technology to cities and homes all over the nation. Famous in Anderson history was his feud with Nikola Tesla, with whom William Whitner sided in support of alternating current. Whitner used AC power to transmit electricity from his experimental High Shoals plant in 1895, furthering the cause for AC as the safest and most efficient generating mode.

Edison, though he fell on the losing side of the AC/DC debate, was a trusted name and brilliant mind in the public eye. That said, even after seeing electric lights strung on a Christmas tree in 1882 the American public was not won over. There existed a general skepticism of electricity itself, fears about its safety, and also a barrier of cost. Prior to 1903, it cost the equivalent of 2,000 present day dollars to light a Christmas tree electrically (according to research by staff at the Library of Congress).

                Average American families picked up the new tradition of electric lights only when costs came down and they had seen them used by the upper classes and national icons. U.S. presidents, being generally looked up to, held great sway over public outlook. Grover Cleveland lit his family tree in the White House electrically in 1895, the first American head of state to do so. But it was Calvin Coolidge who made the biggest holiday splash when he charged up the National Christmas Tree with 3,000 lights in 1923. This coincided with a time frame that Christmas lights were being made affordable and being marketed widely across the nation by NOMA Electric Co.

                Today it is hard to imagine Christmas décor without electricity. Lights offer a feeling of warmth, whether they are as far away as the stars or as close as your living room. So here’s to both the technological growth and time honored traditions that keep our holidays merry and bright.