The insurers weren’t taking a page from Charles Dickens’ Scrooge. Until the age of electricity, Americans lit up their Christmas trees using candles or burning paper (yes, burning paper). Fires had become so common that newspapers would mark the season's first fire with the same regularity that the first snow fall would be recorded.
Christmas had become a nightmare for insurers.
At the turn of the previous century, insurers experienced a yearly post-holiday rush of claims from homeowners and business owners who had been burned by yuletide blazes. Although many of the losses were small, they did add up – and had a serious impact on insurers’ bottom lines.
And some fires hit very close to home for insurers.
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.
Although Santa was singed, Brookes considered himself 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 often proved to be no safer than the open flame lighting they replaced.
A year after their first pronouncement, the New York underwriters added “electric lights” to their list of banned decorations.