A Brief History of Gas/Electric Lighting
In my three previous posts I wrote about the great adventure of finding and revealing the lost gas/electric sconce locations in the Cross House.
In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the first commercially practical incandescent light bulb, and in 1882 Edison created, in New York City, the first practical system for generating electricity for homes and businesses.
During the late 1880s and 1890s, cities across America rushed to build electric generating plants, such as East Coast cities Taunton (1886), Bath (1890), Exeter (1890) and Bristol (1893).
The White House was wired for electricity in 1891.
With such a timeline in mind, the Cross House was perhaps the first private residence in Emporia to have electric lighting.
When I purchased the house in 2014, I knew nothing about gas/electric lighting. Indeed, even though I sell vintage lighting for a living, I knew nothing at all about Victorian-era fixtures, as I specialize in post-1920 lighting (which is FAR more available).
So, doing the research of these posts has been fascinating, and I thought I would share a bit of what I have learned.
Gas/electric fixture were an extraordinary innovation starting in the late 1880s.
Their popularity however was brief.
Within a decade, manufacturers were offering electric fixtures, and in a 1909 Williamson catalog, the gas/electric fixtures were at the back of the catalog (although gas/electric combinations were still being sold through to the 1920s, and beyond).
Gas fixtures remained available in the first part of the 20th-century as some rural areas of America were not electrified until after WWII.
While the gas/electric lighting in the Cross House would have been the very acme of modernity in 1894, just ten years later it would have already seemed a bit passé.
My huge learning curve has been mentored by the brilliant Bo Sullivan. While Bo and I have comparable knowledge about post-1920s lighting, Bo is all-knowing about Victorian-era lighting (as well as a great many other things), and it is great fun talking with him. Thanks Bo!
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Wonderful information! I love every bit of it! Thanks Ross (and Bo.)
Ross, thanks for sharing your passion for lighting (and old houses) with all of us.
A few clarifications of above…
Catalogs of lighting showed electric fixtures as well as gas fixtures from the very early 1880s. The However, many companies issues their catalogs in sets – a separate gas-only catalog, an electric-only catalog, and a combination-only catalog. The Thackara catalog above featured only gas fixtures for this reason, but they also sold electric and combination fixtures at the same time. [Ross reply: I did not mean to suggest in my brief history that the catalogs selected were all inclusive on the subject, and your comment helps clarify this for readers. Thanks!]
You refer to the gas-up/electric-down treatment often, and there are nuances to this. [Ross reply: I agree. I have been pointing out to readers who are unfamiliar with gas/electric fixtures that, in the images I have been showing on the subject, the gas arms face UP and the electric arms DOWN. However, in an image above, #13, the electric arms on the two chandeliers point up!]
First, one major feature of electric lighting – often overlooked today because we take it for granted – is that it could point down and illuminate the area directly beneath it. Candles, oil/kerosene lamps, and gas fixtures all cast a shadow directly below due to the burner. This was a BIG deal. Early attempts to circumvent this are so-called “angle lamps” and the antique store staple “student lamp” with its offset burner that tried to create light for a work surface for “students.” The fixtures above with large central dome shades were another attempt to cast even light from a gas burner onto a surface below.
As for the shift to incandescent gas mantles from open flame jets – a burner technology known by the name of its inventor, Welsbach and familiar today in Coleman lanterns – this occurs in the early 1890s, accelerating in use after 1893. Brighter and more efficient, Welsbach burners helped gas remain competitive with electricity. In 1894, the burners would have all been open flame jets, in a rat-tail, fish-tail, or bat’s wing flame shape.
Welsbach did develop an inverted burner in the late 1890s, finally allowing gas to cast a shadowless downward light, but this technology did not come into widespread use in the U.S. until after 1906. [Ross reply: In the caption of the fifth image, above, I mention: In 1897 a new gas mantle was invented which allowed a gas flame to burn downwards.]
Gas (which was formulated for light output, not heat output like today’s natural gas) remained common and competitive with electricity right up until the period following the introduction of the affordable drawn-tungsten-filament bulb around 1910, which was three times brighter for the same wattage as the carbon-filament bulb. Tungsten bulbs were the final nail in the coffin for gas, and after about 1913 combination fixtures become nearly extinct.
Also, until after 1900 gas always pointed up, there was no such rule for electric sockets, which were used up, down, and sideways.
Ross, the relevant technology advance that is pertinent to your house happened in 1893, when single-loop bamboo filaments give way to double-loop squirted cellulose filaments – your bulbs would have all been double-loop (the “squirrel-cage” look doesn’t come until the Tantalum lamp around 1906). [Ross reply: Double loop bulb. Squirrel cage bulb.]
Also, bulbs went from hand-blown to machine-blown in 1892, regularizing their shape into the familiar pear form.
Also of interest, Harvey Hubbell did not patent the pull-chain socket until 1896, so your house would have had all paddle-type socket switches [Ross reply: cool!]
To learn more about the history and evolution of lighting styles, see these articles originally published in Old-House Journal:
Thanks Bo for the extremely informative comment!!!!!
Actually, I see by my own facts that your gas fixtures well could have had early Welsbach burners and been absolutely cutting edge in 1894. 😉 [Ross reply: a Welsbach burner.]
my ancestors particularly my grandfather were very progressive. Electric lights from the power company did not come to my rural road until after the turn of the century but my family had them around the early 90’s. my great grandfather and grandfather had a generator powered by a single cylinder gas engine – probably a Knox. my dad said when they finally removed it, they took it apart and the cylinder was the size of a dinner plate. they also went out and bought all the workings of an old mill and ran the shafts and belts and pulleys all through the barn and sheds and pumped water (we had a windmill too), milked cows, pulled hay into the mow, ran drill presses and grindstones etc. the electric wires were run on ceramic insulators on the ceiling – two wires about 4 inches apart and the bulbs were all those clear glass ones with the pretzel like wire inside. How do i know about the bulbs – because up into the 1960’s, our plumbing wasn’t as progressive as our lights and there was one of the original bulbs in the indoor outhouse in the shed. it still worked well up into the 90’s when i finally sold it to and antique dealer. when my ex-wife and i moved into the old house after the death of my father, i started researching the electrics since lights were flickering and fuses blowing and found that in many places in the attic, the mice had dined on that tasty tar covering on the wires and there were long stretches of plain bare copper – YIKES!!!!!
our plumbing was progressive in that we had outhouses on both first and second floors – a 4 HOLER downstairs and a 2 holer up. i could never figure why all the holes until my dad pointed out (embarassingly) that men and women are shaped differently thus two holes.
The Foursquare farmhouse in Illinois that my brother currently owns was built in 1910 by my great-grandparents with all electric lighting powered by a battery bank and similar single-cylinder gas engine-powered generator. They didn’t receive rural electric utility service until at least a decade later.
Thank you for this article. I’ve recently discovered that the Horn in Horn and Brannen was my 3 rd great-grandfather.
Very cool information! It’s interesting to put what we now know as “old” technology into the proper perspective that it was cutting-edge new tech at the time. Kind of like a new home today with color-adjustable LED fixtures controlled by a central wireless touchscreen.
Our home in Omaha was built in 1912 with combination gas and electric lighting. Some fixtures were combination, some were gas or electric only, interestingly enough. Sadly only two original combination fixtures remain: simple sconces in two bedrooms with candle-style gas and a downward-facing angled electric bulb.
Finding appropriate teens/twenties electric fixtures hasn’t been that difficult, but I really would like to know what the missing fixtures looked like, especially the newel post lamp.
This is all helpful information and very fascinating!
I was wondering if you knew How (and when) did the change in light source occur from open flame to gas to electricity? Who were the significant change makers in this area? What caused them to use new technology in this way? How did they contribute to the changes of the time? Was change always positive?
If you know anything of this subject I would absolutely love it if you got back to me.
Thanks for the history. I was surprised to find that pipes for gas lights were still in the attic of my 1909 cottage in Portland, Oregon.