Well, ’tis that season again so we send a little jolliness your way with these adorable vintage Christmas tree lights, sold earlier to a happy collector. They are American-made of hand-painted milk glass, an opaque white glass developed in Venice, Italy, in the 16th century as an alternative to porcelain. Milk glass dishes show up often at QBO sales but bulbs are rare. They were among the first electric tree lights, invented when electricity itself was so new in homes that early adopters hired professional electricians to help them set up their electrified trees!
The detailed figural bulbs here were likely made in the mid-1930’s, while the simpler stars and bells were made all the way up to the 1960’s. As you’d expect, many are on Christmas subjects such as stars, bells, and Santas. Less obvious today as being Holiday-themed are the pigs and pocket watches, but throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s both were associated with New Year’s. Clocks represent the passage of time and the countdown to midnight, while pigs embody prosperity and plenty. Vintage turn-of-the-century New Year’s cards often included pigs, horseshoes, 4-leaf clovers, ladybugs and red & white spotted mushrooms as harbingers of good luck but only the clover and horseshoe persist into the present.
The other ornaments here include some old-timey kid favorites in the form of traditional nursery rhyme character Humpty Dumpty and (maybe?) the Cat and the Fiddle, along with the ‘modern’ lantern-jawed fella in his trademark yellow fedora and trench coat, rough and tumble comic book detective Dick Tracy. In contrast, the delicate Asian-themed bulbs help lend an air of adult sophistication.
The majority of these bulbs with their small-bore metal caps are C6 size, while the single Santa with the larger metal cap is a C7, a size still in common use. The vintage string shown is for C7 bulbs and its rubber-insulation dates it to post-WWII; before that electrical cord was wrapped in silk. Since the sockets are different, C6 and C7 bulbs cannot be used on the same string. Vintage C6 strings held 8 or 9 lights, with the 9-light strings being dimmer but longer lasting. Early xmas tree bulbs operated “in series”, meaning the electrical current coming from the wall socket had to pass through each bulb to reach the next. So, when one burned out, interrupting the flow, ALL went out. To re-light the string it had to be left plugged in, and each bulb had to be removed and tested by inserting a fresh one into the socket, one at a time, until the dead bulb was found by default when its replacement lit the entire string. Modern LED parallel circuit lights that keep the rest of the bulbs lit when one burns out are a much-welcomed upgrade!
And also before you deck your tree with vintage lights, let’s talk about SAFETY. First, vintage paints may contain lead, so keep these lights out of reach of children and wash your hands after handling. And while it’s true that IF you find a vintage cord with no breaks in the decades-old insulation, you can indeed still light many of these bulbs up, note that even when they were brand new, they got very HOT – hot enough to burn little fingers and scorch dry pine needles. If there are any problems with the cord, plug, or even a single socket, your tree can catch fire.
But be of good cheer! Collectors have come up with other display options, such as piling figural bulbs in glass bowls to use as centerpieces, or wrapping wire around the metal cap, adding a hook and hanging them on the tree as nostalgic vintage ornaments nestled in among the safer modern lights. Happy Holidays from all of us at QBO and Best Wishes for a Bright New Year!