So impressed was Johnson that when Edison left to start a new company, he followed, quickly making himself useful, turning Edison’s brainstorms into cash. In 1877, after Edison invented the phonograph, Johnson took the machine on tour, charging crowds to drum up excitement. When Edison patented the light bulb in 1880, its exact value was hard to gauge; widespread electrification was still decades away. Still, Johnson, Edison and others invested $35,000 to form the Edison Lamp Company to sell the bulbs.
Before long, Johnson had a bright idea. We tend to think of Christmas-season traditions as ancient, but most of them are rather recent, born in the 19th century. “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was published in 1823, and “A Christmas Carol” in 1843. Thomas Nast’s drawings of jolly Santa Claus debuted in 1862. Meanwhile, in 1841, Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, had introduced Britain to the Teutonic tannenbaum—the Christmas tree—and the idea spread. In the States, President Franklin Pierce put one up at the White House in 1856, and by the 1870s fresh-cut trees were being sold at Washington Square Park, and pretty ornaments at Macy’s.
But what really made a tree a Christmas tree were the candles, and while flickering flames were festive, they were also a fire hazard.
Over at the Edison shop, Johnson saw an opportunity. Setting up a tree by the street-side window of his parlor, Johnson hand-wired 80 red, white and blue light bulbs and strung them together around it, and placed the trunk on a revolving pedestal, all powered by a generator. Then he called a reporter. “At the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect,” wrote W.A. Croffut, a veteran writer for the Detroit Post and Tribune. “It was brilliantly lighted with…eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue….One can hardly imagine anything prettier.” The lights drew a crowd as passers-by stopped to peer at the glowing marvel. Johnson turned his stunt into a tradition; he also pioneered the practice of doing more each year: An 1884 New York Times article counted 120 bulbs on his dazzling tree.