Things That Matter: Christmas tree lights

As we approach the shortest day of the year, let us give thanks for electric lights. When we rise in the dark and come home from work or school in the dark, a brightly lit home, however humble, is a true comfort.

Many of us add the sparkle of a brightly lit Christmas tree, or other holiday lighting, to our homes. And as a community, we love to bask in the magic of the 4 million colored lights in the Rotary Lights display in Riverside Park.

The first Christmas lights were created, fittingly enough, by Thomas Edison, in 1880. He strung together a series of his incandescent light bulbs and hung them outside his Menlo Park laboratory. Two years later his partner, Edward H. Johnson, hand-wired red, white and blue bulbs together and strung them on his revolving Christmas tree. The use of decorative Christmas lighting grew right alongside the use of electric lights in general.

After that, various companies saw the potential and began marketing Christmas lights. This splendiferous strand boasts eight round bulbs that were once painted different colors. The remains of the original label on their box says “Franco, Decorative lighting with Edison miniature incandescent lamps.” Each lamp has a little point, called an exhaust tip, and carbon filaments.

These lights were donated to the La Crosse County Historical Society in 1987 by Frederick G. Davies. Davies was a retired history professor who taught for 29 years at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, or the State Teachers College, as it was then known. Davies was recognized as a scholar of the American Civil War; he was also locally famous for the corncob pipe he smoked and for banning the chewing of gum in his classroom.

When he donated these lights to LCHS, he wrote on his donation form: “… lights from my first Christmas tree, Dec. 25, 1911 … at this time we lived at 1004 Pine St., Winnetka, Ill. My parents were Cora Belle Gould Davies and Rev. J.W.F. Davies.”

A year later, Davies would be dead, at 78. His professional life is memorialized in the Special Collections at UW-L’s Murphy Library, but with this donation of Christmas lights, something of his personal life is illuminated as well. He had saved this memento of his childhood for his entire life, and in giving it to LCHS he made sure to honor the memory of his parents and his childhood home.

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