By Sean Vanatta
In December 1908, the insurance industry declared war on Christmas. The New York Board of Underwriters issued an announcement to every client of every fire-insurance firm in the city.
Your attention is hereby respectfully called to the fact that the introduction about the premises of Christmas green, harvest specimens and other inflammable materials, such as cotton, to represent snow, and the like, and the use of moving picture machines, introduces additional hazard not contemplated by the underwriters in issuing policies of indemnity covering the usual fire hazard.
So many disastrous fires had occurred as a result of Christmas decorations -- not only in retail stores where festive spectacles were common, but also in houses, churches and public buildings -- that "the practical prohibition of this class of display is deemed necessary."
Department store windows, resplendent with the illuminated joy of the holidays? Prohibited. Church transepts swelling with Scotch pine and Douglas fir? Banned. Halls decked with boughs of holly? Forbidden -- so long as the decorators wished to retain their insurance coverage.
To appreciate the underwriters' Scroogian stance, it's important to remember that well into the 20th century, Americans lit up their Christmas trees using actual fire. They typically used candles or burning paper, and conflagrations were so common that newspapers would mark the season's first fire as casually as we might mark the first snowfall.
For insurers, such holiday flame-ups were a nightmare -- like the ghost of Christmas present value. At the turn of the century, insurers experienced a yearly post-holiday rush of claims from homeowners, shopkeepers and others who had suffered damage from yuletide infernos. Most were small, but in some years the losses added up, and a major blaze could severely affect an insurance company's bottom line.
And fires not only torched buildings, they harmed people. In 1900, an unfortunate insurance executive, F. W. S. Brookes, of the Prudential Insurance Co., suffered serious burns while playing Santa Claus for a group of eager children. As Brookes reached for presents in the tree's high branches, his Santa suit caught fire, and he was engulfed in flames until his guests smothered the blaze. Brookes was burned but lucky: News accounts from the period are full of fatalities caused by Christmas tree fires.
Strands of electric lights, first invented in 1882 by Edward H. Johnson, an assistant of Thomas Edison's, offered a festive alternative. But such decorations were initially very expensive, and required professional workmen to install. Moreover, electric lighting was still an imperfect technology, and incandescent decorations often proved to be no safer than the incendiaries they replaced. A year after their first pronouncement, the New York underwriters added "electric lights" to their list of banned decorations.
Not until the 1920s were reliable Christmas tree lights perfected and mass-marketed. Still, even as electric lights became widely available, Christmas tree fires remained common. Chicago still suffered between 15 and 30 such blazes per year through the 1930s, while Christmas crooner Bing Crosby's North Hollywood mansion was consumed by flames after a string of lights short-circuited in 1943.
Luckily for Crosby, by then the underwriters had started to relent. Most of his $200,000 loss was covered by insurance, a spokesman said.
(Sean Vanatta is a graduate student in history at Princeton University. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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