The Cross House

1890s Light Switches. A 24-HOUR UPDATE

Yesterday I was minding my own business when Cody asked a question. I was struck dumb by the question, and did a post as an answer.

The question: Would I be installing period-correct light switches in the Cross House?

I had never thought about this before, and knew NOTHING about what light switches looked like in 1894 when the Cross House was built.

Now, the next day, I know a few things thanks to the wonder of the internet and from readers.

Mike offered a fascinating link that, well, articulated everything one needed to know on the subject! Thanks, Mike!

Here is what I have learned from the article, and from other things I have read in the last day.

I think, think, that there were FEW light switches in the house. The extant switch in the telephone closet may have been the ONLY switch in the house.

Most rooms had gas/electric sconces. The electric sockets would have had turn-key switches. So, one walked up to a sconce and flicked the bulb on and/or lighted the gas.

Same with the gas/electric chandeliers. Each electric socket was individually controlled. At the time, when people were long used to individually lighting every gas jet in a house, switching on individual sockets would have seemed normal. I doubt that anybody ever thought: Damn! Why can’t a wall switch control the whole chandelier!

 

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Nathan wrote in with a link to a company which makes these FABULOUS switches which are period-correct to the early 1890s. Zounds! And this version is also a dimmer! Well, I was agog! The cover plate is antique brass, which is over a black porcelain base, which is over a wood mount. The company offers numerous finishes, and different styles. I love these!

 

The switch above is made by an Australian company, and they have a different electrical system down under. So, one could not actually use the above switch in America. However, the company can, I believe, produce US-compatible versions!

So, should I rush out and order a whole bunch of the compatible versions?

Ahhhhhhhhhhh….no.

Why not???????? You are mean!!!!!!!!

Because this would screw with the historical narrative of the house. Which I discuss often. Even though some readers want to punch me!

It seems that the Cross House had almost no wall switches in 1894. It very likely did not have a single electrical outlet, either (explained in Mike’s link, above). Indeed, no outlets are shown on the original drawings, an omission which has always baffled me. Until now.

Today, to FILL the house with literally hundreds of switches as pictured above would screw with the historical narrative, for I would be introducing something which did not exist when the house was built. I would be creating a faux history, and this is something I work hard to avoid. I do not want a pretend house. A fantasy house.

So, after quite the roller-coaster ride the last 24-hours, I am back to square one:

 

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Because the house basically had no switches, it seems, and did not likely have a single electric outlet, to protect the historical narrative I plan to install the MOST up-to-date switches and outlets I can find, like these LED touch-bar dimmers. NOBODY will mistake these as original! And that is my goal.

 

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They come in a variety of colors/finishes, too! I will likely choose satin brass plates.

 

The Cross House was built during a very brief historical era, sandwiched between the gas era and the latter electric era.

Right before the Cross House was built gas lighting was the norm. There would have been no wall switches for sconces and chandeliers. There would have been no electrical outlets.

Not long after the Cross House was built all electric houses were being constructed and with wall switches and electrical outlets.

So the Cross House represent a brief, unique history. A flash in time. I have worked hard to respect and highlight this distinction, something special and remarkable about the house, by buying gas/electric chandeliers to go in most rooms. To truly honor the historical narrative I would eschew wall switches altogether and individually click on each electric socket in the house at night.

But…no way!

My solution will cause no confusion with the historical narrative. The many many many switches and many many many outlets to be installed will be obviously, proudly modern. The history of the house will be respected. And my life will be made easier.

And I can live with this.

 

 

16 Responses to 1890s Light Switches. A 24-HOUR UPDATE

  1. I guarantee that that fancy LED light switch won’t be functioning 123 years from now, but that mechanical switch from Australia will.

    Just sayin’

  2. Oh wow! Who knew there were companies making suck great looking replica switches? I say go with those incredible looking LED plates which will be quite incredible to use!

    • As I understand it, the LED touch dimmers work as such:

      If you but gently touch the bottom of the vertical bar on the switch, the fixture will light, dimly. The bar, too, will light, but just the bottom portion.

      If you gently brush your finger from the bottom to the middle of the bar, the fixture will turn on, and reach about 50% maximum. Like for a party. Half the touch bar will light, too.

      If you gently brush your finger from the bottom to the top of the bar, the fixture will be fully illuminated, like to clean the room. The touch bar will also be fully illuminated.

      Yes, these switches seem like they will be incredible, and way fun, to use. I also like the idea of having such touches in the house, as a way of confirming that while the house is 123-years-old, it is hip and up-to-date, baby!

      Moroever, when the house was built is was VERY advanced. It had everything: electricity, radiators, telephone closet, speaking tubes, dumb waiter, and laundry chute. I like honoring this heritage by assuring that in 2017 the house will STILL be advanced!

  3. My question is about the old light switch in the telephone closet. Can you open it up and share with us a picture of what’s on the inside? Have you gone into the basement and followed the wires to see what it controlled? If no other rooms in the house had wall switches and all the lights were controlled at the lights themselves then it would seem that this solitary switch controlled something remote. Possibly a porch or post light. Maybe even a light at the guest house. What do you think?

    On a completely different subject I looked at your house on google street view. The images are way out of date but Is that a cast iron mail box in front of your house on the tree lawn? [Ross: That is!]

  4. This is such an interesting subject!

    I love the Art Deco-ish design of the Grafik T touch-bar dimmers; they would also tie in really well with your gorgeous sofa and your lovely peacock bathroom wallpaper. You have such a gift for interior design and for color.

  5. We just stayed in a Late 1890s Victorian mansion in Des Moines, still largely original. We found the telephone closet and there was such a light switch on the trim above the door before entering! The house reminded me much of the Cross House. It was our first air B an B experience!

  6. Love your choice of the satin brass finish. I think these plates will be subtle yet substantial. They will take a back seat to the architecture of your rooms while being sophisticated, interesting objects on their own.

  7. Good afternoon Ross. I came to your house in August and asked for a tour and you told me: “only if the lady out in the car can come also” (my sister).

    I had told you that my husband is an electrician. He doesn’t read your blog but I keep him very up to date on you home. He said definitely go with the new dimmers. He also mentioned that you don’t need breaker boxes in the bedrooms as if there is an issue the breaker in the basment will trip and shut the bedroom down. That is if each room is on its own breaker in the basment.

    Have a wonderful day!!!????

    • Hi Penny!

      I remember you and your sister!

      If I do breaker panels in each bedroom, the bedrooms will not have breaker switches in the basement panel. The bedroom panels will have their own line direct to the main line.

  8. Apart from legal stuff (UL listing) I don’t see any reason not to use your Australian switches in the US. Switches are usually rated for a maximum voltage and operate fine at or anything below that. One fine point may be that they’re obviously not designed to go over a box in the wall (Australia uses the same size boxes as the US) but over wires coming straight out of the wall just like the original switches did and I think that’s not compatible with the US NEC but I’m not 100% sure about that, you’d have to consult with a local electrician. At the very least, skipping boxes would make upgrading to modern flush switches in the future quite a task.

  9. I understand your hesitancy to use something not originally there, but I tend to disagree just from an aesthetic aspect. The Australian switches are so beautiful and would not stick out like a sore thumb and distract from the old beauty of the house. I don’t think it is a trick, just put it in your brochure that the switches were not there originally. The house deserves something more visually appealing and more in context with the era. IMHO. I love what you are doing to the kitchen. It is functional and still keeps the aspect of the original. Functionality is important too, but aesthetics are really important. Originally I am from the New Haven, CT area where I grew up with lots of homes that had beautiful woodwork, gas/electric fixtures, old plumbing fixtures and old wiring and switches all around me. Loved it! Well, you are amazing at what you do. Just throwing my unprofessional two cents at you. Love, love, love your blog!

  10. What a good point that the Cross House was really advanced when it was built, and it still will be in 2017! That will be such a neat thing for people to learn about the house in another 123 years.

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