The holidays might look completely different, if not for a few key inventions.
Christmas is a holiday of centuries-old traditions. But several staples of the season are actually based on relatively recent inventions. Today, we take them for granted, but less than a hundred years ago, most of these technologies didn't exist. What follows are six innovations that forever changed the way people celebrate Christmas.
Following World War II, Christmas lights became a ubiquitous part of the American landscape.
In 1880, Thomas Edison, keen to promote his just-perfected electric light bulb, put up the first string of lights around his Menlo Park laboratory. But it would be another 30 years before bulbs advanced enough to make strings of colored lights possible. Even then, they were relatively pricey, so the first big light displays were -- predictably, perhaps -- in retail stores.
Yale historian Brian Murray, in his treatise, "Christmas Lights and Community Building in America," noted that it took the return of World War II soldiers and the post-war growth of the suburbs to make Christmas light displays a ubiquitous part of the American landscape. Strings of festive lights not only ushered in extravagant decorations on homes, they removed a major fire hazard: Christmas trees were previously lit with candles, so most people would only light them a day or two before the holiday. These days, many Christmas lights have moved beyond incandescent bulbs to LEDs, which use less energy and last longer.
Color lithographs produced high-quality images and ushered in the modern-day Christmas card.
This is another one of those holiday traditions that needed a modern technology -- lithography -- to take off. The "father of the Christmas Card" is Louis Prang, an immigrant from Breslau, which is now in modern-day Poland. In 1873, Prang traveled from Boston to Germany, where he learned how to make color lithographs -- an image etched into stone or metal, coated in ink and pressed onto paper as part of the printing process. Most lithographs of that period were black and white and colored by hand. The so-called chromolithography technique involved creating a stone plate for each of the colors to be printed. It was expensive and laborious but produced higher quality images than anything else at that time.
Prang already had a printing business, and decided to make greeting cards for Christmas. By 1881, Prang was selling 5 million cards every year, according to Marybeth Kavanagh, the Print Room Reference Librarian at the New York Historical Society.
This year, Americans are expected to buy 1.6 billion Christmas Cards, according to the Greeting Card Association.
The very existence of small, standardized batteries made electronic toys possible.
As the package says, batteries are not included. But where would Christmas morning be without these tiny power packs, which have only been around for a little more than a 100 years. The dry cell (D size) was introduced in 1898, and was generally used for flashlights. The 9-volt battery first made an appearance in 1956, followed by the AA and AAA batteries in 1959.
The very existence of small, standardized batteries made electronic toys possible. The first companies to take advantage of that were Japanese toy makers, who needed new markets after the devastation of World War II. Batteries had been used in toys before, but it was the Japanese companies that started using the electricity for more than lights or noise -- they made robots that could move around. One popular item was Robby the Robot, which appeared in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, but there were several imitators. By the 1970s, video games and small electronic toys were everywhere.
These days, kids want iPhones and iPads or Chromebooks, which use more powerful technology than that found in alkaline batteries. But even the most advanced gadget runs on technology developed a century ago.
Tiny electric motors made the train around the Christmas tree possible.
One of the most iconic images at Christmastime is the the railroad track and train under the tree. It dates from about 1900, when a man named Joshua Lionel Cohen set up window displays for department stores that featured toy trains. The idea then wasn't to sell the miniature trains -- it was to show off the then-cutting edge technology of electric motors. But people loved the displays so much, they wanted to own miniature trains. Within a few years, toy electric trains were all the rage.
Lionel Corporation became one of the largest makers of toy trains in the United States. Lionel, shrewdly enough, knew a good thing when he saw it and got toy stores all over the country to put his trains in Christmas displays. While some early models were battery-powered, it wasn't long before the model railroads ran on household electricity, which was rapidly expanding as well. The result: electric trains became iconic Christmas toys by the 1920s, and even now they're still a major part of displays at some department stores.
The availability of cheap aluminum and plastics made tinsel easy to make and buy.
Back in the 17th century, tinsel was made of real silver, which was pulled into thin wire-like strips not unlike the plastic tinsel used today. Unfortunately, silver tarnished fast and, as now, was expensive. Because of that, manufacturers switched to lead, which was found to be poisonous and was finally banned by the FDA in the early 60s.
Around the same time, the availability of cheap aluminum and plastics made making tinsel cheap enough that covering trees with it was possible for ordinary families. Plastic is neither flammable or toxic. By 1950, it was all over the place, creating the post-Christmas cleanup problems we know and love.
The Diners Club card was the first credit card with a magnetic strip.
Credit Cards are a huge piece of Christmas shopping: according to a survey from CreditDonkey.com, some 37 percent of respondents use credit cards to finance their holiday shopping. Online retailing would hardly exist without credit (and debit) cards, since sending cash through the mail is risky and money orders are not always convenient. Christmas shopping, with CyberMonday and Black Friday, only boosts the incentive to use cards as plastic money. As of September 2013, American consumers carry some $846 billion in revolving credit, up from $1 billion in January 1968, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve.
How did this happen? One big factor was magnetic stripes, invented by IBM engineers in the late 1960s. The first recognizable charge cards date back to the 1930s, but they were metal plates stamped with the customer information and they were accepted only at certain stores. It wasn't until 1950 that the Diners Club Card made its debut, and the first real credit card -- a revolving credit instrument accepted widely and issued by a third-party bank -- was issued in 1958. But the cards were easy to forge. The magnetic stripe could hold data reliably on a plastic card, and by the late 1970s the technology was good enough that Visa and MasterCard adopted it.
Magnetic stripes made electronic point-of-sale terminals possible -- no more taking a manual imprint and calling the bank to check that the card was good. A single swipe would do it. The easier, simpler approval of credit card transactions set the stage for a huge jump in the number of stores that would accept cards and the amount of money spent at Christmastime. In January of 1979 American consumers had about $45.5 billion in revolving credit. By mid-1984 that number doubled, and it doubled again by 1988.