Wanna Meet My One Original Light Switch?

Recently, I did a post, inspired by a question Cody asked, about installing period-correct light switches in the 1894 Cross House. Then I did an update.

When Cody posited his question I had not a clue what early 1890s light switches looked like.

A day later I knew a few things, and what I learned startled me:

  • The Cross House retained, perhaps, a single original switch in situ!
  • It is possible that there were no other switches in the whole house, as lighting fixtures of the period were normally controlled at the fixture rather than by a remote switch.
  • The Cross House, likely, did not have a single electric outlet.

Golly. Who knew?

Then Meg and Cory asked if I could find out more about the one original switch in the telephone closet. Did it have a patent date?

I had no idea!



The old switch in the telephone closet. I knew it was there, and knew it was very old, but was it original?



So, following the suggestion by Meg and Cory, I took the face cover off, and burnished it. OH! MY! Do you see what I see???????? This would certainly indicate that this switch WAS original.



Under the cover plate is this fascinating early electric artistry. The round disk is porcelain. The face cover looked like wood but is, surprisingly, steel. The knob is wood.



With the wood knob pulled OUT, the upper/lower vertical extensions push into the contact points (see the very top and very bottom). Thus, the switch is ON.



With the knob pushed IN, the extensions pull out of the contacts (see very top and very bottom). The switch is OFF. Fascinating.


The telephone closet is the only place with an original switch in place. And, again, this may have been the only switch in the house in 1894.

The telephone closet is unique for several reasons, and I suspect these reasons are why this room had a switch:

  1. The closet is, by far, the smallest room in the house meant to be inhabited.
  2. The closet is the only inhabited room with an operable transom window (extant).

I would be surprised if the closet had a gas/electric sconce as the space is SO tiny. So, I assume a pendant fixture hanging from the ceiling. I am also assuming a gas/electric pendant, hence the transom window to keep a person from getting asphyxiated. (The ceiling is gone as is any evidence of What Was.)

But why a wall switch? Why not just reach up and flick the turn/key on the socket as with every other fixture in the house?

I do not know.



  1. [email protected] on January 13, 2017 at 9:58 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m so glad there was a patent date easily accessible. That little piece of artistry is going to look fantastic all polished up!

    • Ross on January 13, 2017 at 11:21 pm

      I know! I can’t wait to get the paint off the porcelain!

  2. Brandy on January 13, 2017 at 10:22 pm

    Maybe the switch is on the outside so Mr and Mrs Cross could tell the children it was time to get off the phone? Like my dad flipping the porch light off and on to let us girls (and our dates) know that time was up!

    • Ross on January 13, 2017 at 11:20 pm

      Provocative idea! But the switch is inside the telephone closet.

  3. tiffaney on January 14, 2017 at 12:11 am

    Maybe that’s just where they kept their new-fangled technology (phone, lightswitch). Dig around and you might find a fax machine or antibiotics.

    • Ross on January 14, 2017 at 10:11 am


  4. Celeste on January 14, 2017 at 1:24 am

    The telephone could have been the only item that ran solely on electricity when the house was built. Maybe they had the electrical switch in the telephone booth because they would need it there?

    • Ross on January 14, 2017 at 10:09 am

      I believe you are correct! The telephone would have probably been the only electrical device in the house.

      I never thought about that!

  5. Cory on January 14, 2017 at 5:55 am

    Thank you for posting some pictures of your amazing light switch! I have never seen one that old. Too bad we can’t go back in time and see what it turned on. Wouldn’t it be funny if it was used to turn on the no vacancy sign when your house was a motel?

    • Ross on January 14, 2017 at 10:12 am

      I still want that sign!

  6. Penny Riedel on January 14, 2017 at 8:02 am

    Maybe it has a switch because the room is so small and would have been extreamly dark inside at night. Instead of reaching up trying to find the switch or cord they knew right where it was on the wall??? Back then that the phone was a very elaborate gadget to have. I don’t believe the children were probably allowed to use it and probably wouldn’t have anyone to call anyway as their friends probably didn’t have phones. Maybe the switch inside was so the kiddos would know to be quiet when the light was on as someone was on the phone????

  7. Riley on January 14, 2017 at 8:33 am

    A puzzle, indeed.

    Do you believe that the original intent for telephone closet was to, indeed, house a telephone? Or could that space have had a different purpose at its origin, with the telephone being added at a later time?

    Who is the oldest living person in your town? Would they have memories of the time period of your house?

    • Ross on January 14, 2017 at 9:42 am

      I have an 1895 article on the house, and it mentions the telephone closet.

      The house also retains, it seems, the original remote ringer, which I plan to restore to use!

  8. Cindi M on January 14, 2017 at 6:45 pm

    When you restore the phone to the closet and make your first call, please post the video, even if you, like Bell, are calling for help.

    • Ross on January 14, 2017 at 8:47 pm

      Good idea!

  9. Rachael on January 14, 2017 at 9:07 pm

    I recently stayed in a grand 1897 Queen Anne in Des Moines! that had the same switch outside of its telephone closet!

    I am so excited about the patent! Old houses are intoxicating !

  10. californianinkansas on January 15, 2017 at 11:53 am


  11. Jackie on January 15, 2017 at 4:14 pm

    Here’s what I’m thinking:

    I understand that people were used to turning on lights at the source. How often would the Crosses have done that themselves though?

    I think that the switch in the telephone closet meant that the Crosses could control that light on their own (no servants needed to be summoned, or hanging around to listen).

    No one would feel the need for switches in other places since they weren’t responsible for them anyway.

    • Ross on January 15, 2017 at 4:26 pm

      That does make sense.

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