As long as there have been Christmas trees, there have been Christmas tree fires.
No matter the decade, there are horrific stories. In 1858, six buildings burned and three were totally destroyed in New York’s Bowery neighborhood by “Christmas trees having taken fire.” Half a century later, in 1931, the paper told of a woman trying to throw a “blazing Christmas tree” out of her apartment window in Queens. Two decades after that, in 1951, a Christmas tree fire in Tijuana, Mexico, killed 34 people.
By 1930, the Times marveled that “the Christmas tree with the old-fashioned candles … the worst fire menace of Yuletide,” had caused only one fire in the city on Christmas Day.
To combat these Christmastide conflagrations, Americans have turned to technology. Electric tree lights, invented in the late 19th century, are probably the biggest success on this front. They eliminated, or at least greatly reduced, open-flames-on-a-tree from the holiday.
But there’s another, lesser-known invention aimed at the same problem: the Christmas tree fire extinguisher.
Make that inventions, plural. The U.S. Patent Office records multiple inventors who tried inserting a fire extinguisher in a Christmas tree. Many of them follow similar patterns. In 1947, Leonard Deyo proposed running a tube of fluid up a tree’s trunk and putting the dispenser at the top—in other words, replacing the star with a star-shaped sprayer.
“The part containing the extinguishing fluid is of ornamental design but fragile to be opened for spreading the fluid over the tree,” he wrote, “the opening of the container being effected automatically when a predetermined temperature, resulting from a flame, has been effected.”
More recent attempts have replaced the fluid with fire-retardant agent (as in James Hopkins’s 2008 filing) and concealed the nozzles inside the tree. William Dyson III—who filed a patent on a “Christmas Tree Fire Extinguishing and Alert System” this decade—hid nozzles up and down the inside of the tree:
Many recent patents also include a loud alarm to alert people inside the house to the fact their tree has been triggered. So far, no internal Tannenbaum fire prevention method seems to have caught on. But despite the ubiquity of electric lights, tree fires remain a big problem. Between 2007 and 2011, according to the National Fire Protection Association, American fire departments responded to more than 1,000 home fires that began with a dry, blazing Christmas tree.