GALION — In the time before the invention of electric Christmas tree lights, many trees were brightened by the use of lighted candles. This dangerous practice resulted every year in many fires and deaths. Even after the use of strings of electric lights became popular, some homes, for various reasons, continued to use lighted candles, even if for a short period of time. The danger was real.
Over 65 years ago, the Galion Inquirer, in a December edition, cautioned the public in the use of Christmas decorations and flammables in general. The paper reported in part:
“… the highly inflammable evergreen trees and decorations or the cotton beard of a thinly disguised Santa Claus frequently ignited from a lighted candle or match and serious results ensue.”
The paper noted that unless there was a special stipulation covering such a hazard, insurance policies would not be liable for fires or accidents “by any means within the control or knowledge of the assured.” This meant anyone putting flammable substances about would not be covered by his insurance.
Some guidelines were offered by the article: “In the first place, the tree should be set up securely so that it will not easily topple over, and it should be several feet away from heating or lighting fixtures. Metal tinsel with flake asbestos and powdered mica make excellent materials for snow effects and will not burn. Cotton and paper, on the other hand, are highly dangerous. The tree should never be illuminated with candles. There is some danger in widely sold colored electric light assemblies due to insufficient insulation and other causes, but the hazard is small beside that of a lighted candle.”
The Inquirer further advised that “… ornaments should be of metal and not of paper or pyroxylin plastic, which is commonly known as celluloid, pyralin, French ivory, and by other names. Pyroxylin plastic is extremely inflammable and will ignite at comparatively low temperature.”
Smokers were cautioned to “… exercise great care with their matches and smoking materials, and parents should see that all matches are kept in metal or china containers, out of the reach of youngsters.”
As the toys today are examined for potential hazards, yesterday’s toys, the article continued, “… should not involve the use of alcohol, gasoline or kerosene and low priced electrical playthings should be viewed with suspicion since they are often insecurely wired and are flimsily constructed.
“An extremely hazardous plaything of comparatively recent development,” the Inquirer went on, “is the home motion picture projector using celluloid films and often illuminated with a flimsy calcium carbide lamp. It would be difficult to place a more dangerous combination in the hands of children.”
And it wasn’t just the decorations which were hazardous in those days; cautions were advised about the following:
“If the call for Santa Claus is a crying need that will accept no substitute, the impersonator should avoid long cotton ‘whiskers’ and should keep away from lights and open fires. As an additional protection, the costume used may be partially fireproofed with the following solution” two ounces of carbonated soda, two ounces of ammonia carbonate, two ounces of boric acid, and five gallons of water. The mixture should be allowed to come to a boil and should then be strained and sprayed upon the material to be protected.”
I imagine that old Santa didn’t smell like pine needles and snow at Christmas.
In the event the old gentleman should go up in flames anyway, the article told how to roll him up in a rug or woolen cloth to keep the fire away from the face.
Galion homes and churches in those days used live trees and some still used lighted candles, albeit with great caution. Miriam Sayre recently told of the First United Church of Christ (then the First Reformed Church) holiday tree which for a short service, was decorated with lighted candles. “Four men,” she said, “each with a bucket filled with water, were stationed on each side of the tree during the ceremony and that was their job, to be fire wardens for the tree.”
We had a lighted-candle tree at our house — just once. It was in 1937, and my mother, with her German Christmas traditions, wanted one last look as such a display.
My father and I stood by with water buckets and the picture was snapped; the candles were extinguished and no fires resulted.
Your Historical Galion is contributed by the Galion History Center and features the writings of Dr. Bernard M. Mansfield and other local historians. This story was first published in the Galion Inquirer on Dec. 19, 1987. For information about the Galion History Center, visit www.galionhistory.com.