Back to Guides

2011 HOLIDAY GUIDE THREE: Light it up

How Tacoma came to be known as ‘The Electric City'

In December 1954, Santa and his sleigh took a spin on the lighted ferris wheel on top of the B&I on South Tacoma Way. Photo credit: Richard Studio Collection / Tacoma Public Library

Recommend Article
Total Recommendations (0)
Clip Article Email Article Print Article Share Article

Christmas in Tacoma means many things. Battling against shoppers at the mall. Drinking hot chocolate at Zoolights. Singing while waiting for the Christmas Ship.

But decades ago, Christmas also meant a contest that no longer exists. For almost 50 years, homes and businesses throughout T-town duked it out for the best holiday decorations.

The Tacoma Times details how, in the mid-1920s, Tacoma's Christmas tree contests began, taking advantage of the many evergreens dotting the yards of homes in city. As the contests grew more popular, they expanded to include doorways, trees inside but viewable through windows, rooftop displays, as well as commercial locations. Contest divisions were added throughout the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s to accommodate the growing city and many entries. The contests were most often headed up by the Tacoma Garden Club with assistance from other local committees and groups. Contest winners could expect fame and riches. According to the Times, the grand prize was a whopping $15.

Ira S. Davidson, commissioner of Tacoma Light, is quoted in a 1939 Tacoma News Tribune story as saying Tacoma was becoming known as the "The Electric City" due to its holiday sparkle.

As World War II progressed, Tacoma's Christmas bling contests suffered. As The Tacoma Times wrote in 1943, "... because war industries need all available power, and because of acute shortages of light bulbs and other electrical materials, the people of Tacoma Tuesday were asked to restrict Christmas decorations to interior displays only."

According to an article in the Tacoma News Tribune from 1945, before the war, electricity was cheap and many households decorated the trees in their yards. But during the war, the Northwest was within range of Japanese bombs. Lit trees might as well have been bull's eyes for bombers. Blackouts were more common, so the contests ceased. In 1945, when the war ended, Tacoma's Christmas spirit renewed - and contests resumed with great fervor.

In the 1950s and 60s, News Tribune articles announced spectacular displays - in 1954, the entire hillside of Brown's Point was virtually lit up by displays; in 1955, Earl L. Irwin, owner of the B&I, won the contest for a 35-foot-high Ferris wheel with six reindeer passengers and a Santa Claus sliding down a 12-foot chimney, all perched on the B&I roof.

But all good things must end. The year 1973 came with a great electricity shortage, one that shut down the contests for a couple years. Even though Tacoma City Light said the contests could go on in 1974, the extravagant use of electricity had come under so much fire that the event began to falter. Where wartime and other crises could not fell the tradition of lighting up homes for the holidays, a conservationist attitude about energy use after this crisis could.

Today, while there is certainly no shortage of lights around Tacoma, even the memory of this contest is all but gone. Even asking long-time Tacoma residents yields little success in finding anyone who remembers the days when we burned through electricity proudly in the name of Christmas cheer.

Read next close



Comments for "2011 HOLIDAY GUIDE THREE: Light it up" (2)

Weekly Volcano is not responsible for the content of these comments. Weekly Volcano reserves the right to remove comments at their discretion.

User Photo

Jason said on Dec. 13, 2011 at 6:57am

Thanks for sharing this story. A city wide Griswold moment, and all for 15 bucks. Cool pic of the B&I too.

User Photo

Vicky said on Dec. 13, 2011 at 7:12am

My parents participated in this contest for many years. It brought a great deal of excitement to all of us each year to see what Dad would come up with to top the year before. Our house always looked spectacular and received several contest awards. My family loves to look at the photos and reminisce.

Leave A Comment

(This will not be published)


Respond on Your Blog

If you have a Weekly Volcano Account you can not only post comments, but you can also respond to articles in your own Weekly Volcano Blog. It's just another way to make your voice heard.

Site Search