Lights have been a part of the Christmas tree tradition since at least the seventeenth century, when German families decorated evergreen boughs with wicks burning in tallow, oil, or more expensive wax. By the 1800s, candles had become commonplace in German and American homes, and people devised clever ways to affix them to Christmas trees.
Some selected long, thin rope candles that could be wrapped around Christmas tree branches. Others used wire to secure thicker candles, “glued” them to the tree with melted wax, or stuck them to branches using tacks or stick pins. The first commercially manufactured Christmas tree candleholders employed the stick pin method but offered additional support—turned-up metal tabs that held the candle.
Into the nineteenth century, innovators sought a remedy for dripping wax—a perennial holiday annoyance. A home lighting technology, the bobeche, or wax-catching dish, was patented for Christmas trees in 1867. Christmas tree candleholders soon featured crimped tin bobeches and wire or sharp tacks that united candle, wax-catcher, and tree branch.
As one might imagine, the clunky combination of tall candle, flimsy tin, and drooping branch—secured only by a bit of wire or small tack—lacked stability. Candles that leaned, even slightly, dripped wax onto ornaments or the floor. They were also potential fire hazards.
On Christmas Eve 1867, New Jersey inventor Charles Kirchhof received a patent for his counterweight candleholder—a solution to the tilting candle problem. Kirchhof designed a candleholder that hooked simply over a Christmas tree branch. Beneath it, a weight suspended from a wire ensured that the candle stayed upright. The effective, attractive design was a hit.
Counterweighted candleholders were popular in the late nineteenth century because they worked—and because their dangling weights added a pop of color or sparkle to the Christmas tree. Counterweights ranged from simple clay balls painted with solid or glittery lacquer to lead or tin shaped as pine cones, acorns, icicles, stars, birds, cherubs, or even Santa Claus.
Left: Candleholder featuring a brightly-painted clay counterweight, 36.637.9 (THF155315)
Right: This star-shaped counterweight is made of heavy lead, 22.214.171.124 (THF155314)
But the weight that made Kirchhof’s design so effective and so popular was also its biggest flaw. Counterweighted candleholders were heavy. They couldn’t be hung from small or dry boughs and caused even healthy branches to droop, sometimes sending a lighted candle tumbling into the tree or onto the floor.
In New York, inventor Frederick Arzt worked to improve the Christmas tree candleholder. In 1879, he introduced the spring clip candleholder. Light, reliable, and available in a variety of eye-catching designs and colors, the Christmas candle clip would remain prevalent into the 1920s.
These are Christmas Lights?
Candles weren’t the only nineteenth-century lighting source, even for the Christmas tree. Manufacturers applied other existing technologies, producing Christmas tree lanterns made of tin or thin glass. One inventor even patented a miniature Christmas tree oil lamp. A very early and popular American alternative to candleholders were glass “Christmas lights,” manufactured to be hung with wire from Christmas tree branches. Beautiful patterns in the clear or colored glass reflected light from inside, where a wick burned in cork or wood floating atop oil or water.
The Edison Electric Company released the technology that made electric Christmas lights a possibility in 1879, but American and German companies produced Christmas tree candleholders into the 1920s. Candle clips remained common, although they became less colorful and much simpler in form. Manufacturers continued to experiment, using soft wire and strips of tin in search of ever-safer designs.
Eventually, as electrification reached more American households and people gained trust in the new technology, electric Christmas tree lights caught consumers’ attention. Manufacturers wisely advertised the advantages of electric Christmas lights over candles: strands of electric lights (called “festoons”) could be turned on or off all at once—even better, they could stay lit for any desired amount of time with minimal attention. By the 1930s, Americans had made the switch from Christmas tree candles to electric Christmas lights—but the spirit of innovation that drove the development of Christmas tree candleholders lives on.
By Saige Jedele, Curatorial Assistant and The Henry Ford
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