7 Christmas Inventions and their Surprising Origins
December 14, 2010
Have you ever wondered where Christmas lights, candy canes and other holiday mainstays originated? Here we look at the history of some of the most enduring holiday-season inventions.
Some of our favorite holiday products, from decorations to toys, have surprising origins. Ever wondered where tinsel comes from (and why we drape it over trees)? Or have you ever asked yourself when people started to wrap their presents in paper? Learn the history of these and other interesting holiday inventions.
Where Christmas Lights Come From
People first began putting lights on their Christmas trees in the 17th century by attaching small candles to the branches using wax or pins, according to the Great Idea Finder. As a result, most people didn't put up their lights until Christmas Eve due to the risk of fire. The first electric Christmas lights were developed by Edward Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison's, in 1882. Johnson hand-wired 80 red, white and blue lights and wrapped them around a rotating evergreen.
In the 1900s, department stores began using elaborate Christmas tree light displays to attract customers, but the practice wasn't popularized domestically until 15-year-old Albert Sadacca, whose family produced novelty illuminated birds, started selling multicolored lights that were already strung together in response to a tragic fire in 1917 caused by lit candles. Sadacca's business, the NOMA Electric Company, went on to become the world's largest Christmas lighting company until 1965.
The Story of Tinsel
Tinsel, the thin sparkling strands we drape over Christmas trees, first appeared in Germany around 1610 and were originally thin strips of material extruded from real silver. According to WiseGeek.com, silver looked good but tarnished quickly and was soon replaced by other sparkly metals. Tinsel was first placed on Christmas trees to accentuate the glow of lit candles, and only the wealthiest people could afford entire garlands.
Advances in manufacturing eventually resulted in cheaper aluminum-based tinsel, and by the early 20th century most consumers could afford tinsel garlands, as well as individual pieces of tinsel known as icicles. By the 1950s, the use of tinsel garlands and icicles nearly overshadowed the use of Christmas lights.
The Delicious Origins of the Candy Cane
Although there are numerous legends about the origins of the candy cane as a religious symbol, the first historical mention of this holiday treat came from Germany in 1670, when a choirmaster bent sugar sticks into the shape of a shepherd's cane to hand out to children, according to the Great Idea Finder. The first reference to candy canes in America was in 1847, when a German-Swedish immigrant in Ohio used them to decorate a spruce.
The original canes were entirely white, and it wasn't until the 20th century that the colorful red stripes were added. In the 1920s, cracker businessman Bob McCormack began making candy canes as Christmas treats for the community in Albany, Georgia, pulling, twisting, cutting and bending them by hand. In the 1950s, McCormack's brother-in-law invented a machine to automate the process. Later, McCormack's descendants developed packaging advances that enabled them to ship the fragile canes around the world and turned their company, Bobs Candies Inc., into the world's largest candy cane producer.
Adhesive Tape and Wrapping Paper
In 1923, while working at 3M, inventor Richard Drew developed one of the most practical items for the office, home and holiday season: adhesive tape. According to MIT's Inventor of the Week archive, the first prototype had adhesive on the sides but not down the middle, and when it fell off a car in a trial run, a frustrated worker told Drew, "Take this tape back to those Scotch bosses of yours and tell them to put more adhesive on it!" The name stuck, and Scotch Tape — the world's first transparent tape, made with resins, rubber and oil — was born.
According to entrepreneurial blog Biz in a Boxx, people have been wrapping gifts since paper was first invented circa 105 A.D., but the practice didn't become popular until around the 1920s. Before then, gifts were typically wrapped in tissue paper or plain brown paper until printing technology improved and paper could be colored, decorated and folded in mass volumes. Hy-Sill Manufacturing Inc. was the first U.S. gift-wrapping company. Hallmark entered the market in 1917, selling large pieces of wrapping paper for $0.10 a sheet.
The Truth Behind Rudolph
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer wasn't part of Santa's original sleigh-driving team. In fact, he isn't mentioned in Christmas folklore at all. Rudolph was actually invented in 1939 by a Montgomery Ward copywriter named Robert May who was tasked with creating a Christmas story the department store chain could give away to customers as a promotion, according to Snopes.com. Drawing on elements from the "Ugly Ducking" fable and his own experiences as a child, May crafted a story about a misfit with a glowing red nose who manages to prove himself to his peers. After considering names like Rollo and Reginald, May finally settled on Rudolph.
Millions of copies of the Rudolph story sold in the 1940s, and May eventually secured the character's copyright for himself, producing a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cartoon, a bestselling song and a television special that remains a perennial favorite. However, the story familiar to us today is slightly different from May's original version, in which Rudolph grew up in a reindeer village rather than the North Pole, had a loving family and was discovered when Santa Claus came to drop off gifts at his home.
History of the BB Gun
The 1983 film classic A Christmas Story revolves around Ralphie Parker's mission to obtain the elusive Daisy Red Ryder BB Gun. The BB gun, or air rifle, has remained a rite of passage for generations of kids, but its history is somewhat surprising: it originated at a windmill. In 1886, the Plymouth Iron Wind Mill Company in Michigan was struggling to convince farmers to switch from wooden windmills to an iron alternative. According to InventHelp.com, inventor Clarence Hamilton created the first air-powered rifle for the company to distribute as an incentive to purchase their windmills.
An odd thing happened — the giveaway, a gun known as the Daisy Rifle, proved more popular than the windmill. As windmill sales declined, demand for BB guns skyrocketed. By 1889, the Plymouth Iron Wind Mill Company changed its name to Daisy Manufacturing Company and began manufacturing and selling BB guns full time. Decades later, children like Ralphie Parker were still pining for their very first air rifle.
What is Tinsel?
by Michael Pollick
Christmas Tree Lights
The Great Idea Finder, 2007
Did You Ever Wonder About the Origin of the Candy Cane?
The Great Idea Finder, 2007
Richard Drew (1899-1980)
Inventor of the Week (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Entrepreneurs and Holiday Inventions
by Melissa Rose
Biz in a Boxx, Dec. 21, 2010
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Snopes.com, Dec. 22, 2009
Famous Toy Inventions
InventHelp.com, December 2004