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    Auction Finds

    Vintage Christmas tree topper in shape of star

    I didn’t notice the hollow metal star until I was combing through a box of items I had just bought at auction. The word “Presto” was engraved on one side, and the areas around each of the five points had a narrow red, black and green band.

    A short electrical cord stretched from inside the star, which measured 4 ½” wide, and ended in a tiny wooden bulb that resembled a Christmas light. I finally realized that this was a vintage Christmas tree topper and the bulb screwed into one of the receptacles on a string of lights.

    It was a far cry from my own  tree topper. It is an angel dressed in a full gold dress with gold wings. I bought her some years ago at a big-box pottery store in North Carolina that sold a mix of items. I didn’t realize then that I was buying one of what were the earliest types of Christmas tree toppers, angels, which originally were made mostly of foil and paper.

    Star Christmas tree topper

    The star Christmas tree topper I bought at auction.

    The topper at auction was likely made during the early part of the 20th century, at a time when stars seemed to be more common. A similar Presto topper was offered on the web by a seller who dated it to the 1940s, but I figured that it was more a guess than a fact. I could find little else about the company or its tree topper.

    Metal tree toppers in the form of stars were said to be first produced in the 1920s by the M. Propp Company. The early set consisted of the star plus three connected bulbs. Several of the tree toppers and Christmas lights on the web carried the name NOMA – National Outfit Manufacturers Association – which was formed in 1925 by various light companies to combine resources and reduce costs, according to the website oldchristmastreelights.com.

    The separate companies sold products under the NOMA name but also under their own names. A year later, they all merged to become the NOMA Electric Co. In 1929, the company offered a “pigtail” on the star that screwed into a string of lights like a bulb. The Presto lighter at auction was a pigtail. Here are some early lights and tree toppers.

    Star Christmas tree topper

    Another angle of the vintage star Christmas tree ornament. Note the wooden bulb at the tail.

    The company’s lights were very popular, and it was credited with some of the major developments in Christmas lighting, including the “bubble” light in the 1940s.

    Christmas lights weren’t always the choice of decoration for trees. The first Christmas tree originated in Germany and was decorated with apples and other items. By the 18th century,  candles were used. In this country, Thomas Edison developed the means for lighting Christmas trees in the late 19th century with the invention of the light bulb. Several accounts credited him with stringing the first set of lights outside his laboratory in Menlo Park, NJ.

    Edward H. Johnson, an associate of Edison’s, was credited with being the first to actually string lights around a Christmas tree. He displayed a lighted tree in his home on Fifth Avenue in New York on December 22, 1882, strung with 80 red, white and blue hand-wired electric lights. A Detroit newspaper first wrote about it, because most publications seemingly ignored it. Two years later, the New York Times wrote about it.

    Angel Christmas tree topper

    My angel Christmas tree topper.

    Here is an account from the Detroit newspaper:

    “Last evening I walked over beyond Fifth Avenue and called at the residence of Edward H. Johnson, vice-president of Edison’s electric company. There, at the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree, presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect. It was brilliantly lighted with many colored globes about as large as an English walnut and was turning some six times a minute on a little pine box. There were eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue. As the tree turned, the colors alternated, all the lamps going out and being relit at every revolution. The result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white and blue, all evening.

    I need not tell you that the scintillating evergreen was a pretty sight – one can hardly imagine anything prettier. The ceiling was crossed obliquely with two wires on which hung 28 more of the tiny lights; and all the lights and the fantastic tree itself with its starry fruit were kept going by the slight electric current brought from the main office on a filmy wire. The tree was kept revolving by a little hidden crank below the floor which was turned by electricity. It was a superb exhibition.”

    Some folks were not as thrilled with electricity, so Christmas tree lights weren’t readily accepted. The idea seemed to have caught on after President Grover Cleveland had them placed on trees inside the White House in 1895. General Electric began selling the first pre-wired light kits around the turn of the 20th century.

    President Calvin Coolidge started a tradition when on Christmas Eve 1923, a National Christmas Tree with 3,000 bulbs was lighted on the South Lawn of the White House.

     

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    2 Comments

    1. This is a wonderful article; thank you! This year, while helping my parents move to a retirement community, we found a topper like this one, however, my parents were unable to recall any details about it. I would love to have this top my tree and was wondering if you could possibly tell me what size bulbs it uses.

      Many thanks and Merry Christmas to you and yours.

      Scott Witmer

      • Hi Scott, I’m not sure what size bulb, but I’d suggest taking it to a Home Depot or Lowes and search their bulbs. Both usually have a large selection. I’m not sure if your tree topper has the wooden bulb-like piece hanging on the wire as mine, but that appears to be the right size bulb. It’s about 1 1/4″ long with a half-inch opening for the bulb. It looks to be the size of a very small Christmas tree bulb (if those are made anymore). Also, the wiring on my tree topper needs some work. If yours does, too, you may want to have an electrician to repair it before you use it. Good luck and Merry Christmas, Sherry

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