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Things That Matter: Christmas tree lights

One of my favorite holiday events is Rotary Lights, and this annual extravaganza in Riverside Park would not be possible without the invention and improvement of electric lights.

The NOMA Co. was an early innovator in the manufacturing of Christmas lights, and the La Crosse County Historical Society has a set of them in its collection that was used to light Christmas trees during the 1950s.

Edward Hibberd Johnson was the first person to use electric lights on a Christmas tree in 1882. Johnson, the vice president of the Edison Illuminating Co., used 80 bulbs to light up a tree that rotated six times each minute.

Before electric lights became common in the 1930s, people often used candles to light their trees, an obvious fire hazard. General Electric created strands of lights that consisted of a string of eight sockets, but these were too expensive for most Americans.

Some of the first affordable Christmas lights were made by the National Outfit Manufacturer’s Association, or NOMA for short. NOMA, founded in 1925 in New York City, was a trade group made up of about a dozen smaller manufacturers. In 1926, the businesses in the association merged into a single company, NOMA Electric Corp., which quickly saw the potential of electric Christmas lights.

NOVA made regular improvements to its product. In 1934, it offered parallel wiring, so if one light broke or burned out, it would not break the circuit, casting the tree into darkness. In 1940, the company used rubber cords for insulation on its lights. NOMA also is credited with being the first company to manufacture bubble lights (1946) and introducing fused safety plugs (1951) that further reduced the risk of fire.

This set of NOMA Safety Plug Christmas Lights includes a string of seven lights, with fasteners to hang them on a tree. The set also includes extra fuses. The lights appear to have been used — two of the painted bulbs are missing, and there are bits of pine needles inside the box — but the lights have been carefully stored in their colorful package, which includes an endorsement from Santa himself: “For a safer and brighter Christmas.”

While trying to untangle your collection of Christmas lights this year, take a few minutes to appreciate all the innovations that went into that string.

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