The Cross House

What The Heck Does An 1890s Light Switch Look Like?

Cody just asked if I would be installing period-correct light switches in the 1894 Cross House.

I stared and stared at the question on my computer screen.

Huh? What?

I have never given this an ounce of thought, and was planning to install modern switches (and electrical outlets). These would not confuse the historical narrative of the house and are safe. And available. And inexpensive.

However, my brain being, well, my brain, began wondering: What does a 1890s electrical switch look like?

And Google provided an instant answer.

One would think I would have asked this a long time ago.

 

Most
Most people, when they think of vintage switches, think of these. I have no idea when these switches were invented but have always thought circa-1920. Maybe circa-1910? My sister’s 1920s house is filled with these; all original. This type switch is still being made, and with even a dimmer version! (You rotate the upper knobs.) While lovely, I cannot install these as they would confuse the historical narrative of the house because I am pretty sure these type switches were not around in 1894.

 

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These though, it seems, WERE around in the 1890s! Cool.

 

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Even cooler. But…wait…don’t I…already…have something sorta kinda like this in the house?

 

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GASP! I do!!!!!!!! This is in the telephone closet. I had always planned to reactivate this wonderful switch. I knew it was very old. But I never thought it might well be original! ZOUNDS!

 

Well, golly. I am all twitterpated now!

But…but…are 1890s period-correct switches safe? I am sure they are not grounded. They also no not mate with modern  electrical boxes, so back-plates would have to be made (kinda killing the effect). And they do not dim. I want dimmers. I dream about dimmers.

GEEK BIT: The toggle switch, common today, was invented in 1917.

I had been planning to install these:

 

The
The vertical bar lights up (it is an LED touch bar)! I liked these dimmers because they are SO modern, and will announce in a subtle way that, while the Cross House may be 123-years-old, it is up-to-date, baby! They also come in different colors! Moreover, the dimmers will not confuse the historical narrative.

 

Well, this was the plan.

Has Cody now thrown a wrench in such plans?

Please stay tuned to this channel.

 

 

 

57 Responses to What The Heck Does An 1890s Light Switch Look Like?

        • Personally though, in a few select rooms, I would probably opt for the rotary switches, dimmers be damned. Remote controlled dimmer bulbs? Or were you thinking Edison’s? I wouldn’t worry about installing them in every room of the house though. Your concern about grounding is a valid one. Definitely let us know what you find out about that little problem.

  1. Maybe install the 1890s ones in some of the formal 1890s rooms with 1890s light fixtures and the modern ones in other rooms that have non period correct fixtures

    • But are 1890s switches safe? I am sure they are not grounded.

      They are also way smaller than a modern electric box. How to compensate?

      They do not dim. I need dimmers!

          • Me too! I am just wondering though, these are shown as being for 240v applications, would they work on our 120v systems?

            [Ross: The company which makes the switches is in Australia! They seem to be able to offer American compatible versions, if I understand correctly.]

      • Do you have a grounded system? I am certainly not an electrician, and seem to short circuit the system with my body every time I try to fix things, but, if your system is grounded, you may not need a grounded switch. In Chicago, all elec is piped in metal, which is where we get our ground. I know not everyone does this though. Do you guys have the grounding wire? Maybe that is something that could be retrofitted onto an old switch fairly inexpensively. Again, not an expert, but there could be some work-arounds.

        • Conduit grounding of circuits is NOT SAFE ! Because the conduit could be loose or even disconnected/ damaged. The ground needs to be continuous or tap-splice to a device.

      • I have two original two-button light switches in my 1910 house that are still operable. I also have an original 3-in-a-row round holed outlet. If I were you, I’d be more worried about the wiring than the switch. Look around…there are companies that make “new” old switches but if the wiring is original like mine, I’d invest in that first.

  2. I love the look of the old switches, but because we also live in a 123 old house, I feel safety should come first. Modern switches won’t take away from the 1894 look and feel of the house. I wanted to tell you how much I LOVE what you did to the floors, they are stunning! And, your plans for the kitchen are amazing! I can just picture you having your morning coffee in there with all the great natural light coming in the big window.

    • EJ, you make me smile! Thank you!

      And when the kitchen is done, I will invite you over for a cup of morning coffee in front of the BIG window!

      [EJ lives really close by!]

  3. Ross,

    If you must have dimmers go with the first. If not, go with the second. This is where I think you go overboard with regards to the narrative. The modern dimmers are butt ugly!

    Switches aren’t grounded. They’ll be safe as long as the contacts are reasonably clean.

    • I adore the modern dimmers!

      I love all eras of design. I love (obviously) Victorian-era houses. I also love later eras, like 1920s and 30s and 40s. I even love mid-century modern. I also love well-designed contemporary houses and furnishings.

      Why can’t the finished Cross House reflect 123-years of design?

      Oh, modern switches ARE grounded.

      • Ross,

        You’re correct. Modern switches can be grounded. The majority of my house is knob and tube and isn’t grounded. I am not worried. The majority of my electrical appliances are also not grounded.

        When my kitchen was mostly gutted, the electrician forced me to install GFCI receptacles. We compromised, I installed grounded receptacles and a GFCI breaker in the panel. I refuse to see an LED indicator in my vintage room.

        I am not as concerned about the narrative. I use these little things as teaching moments.

        • The Cross House is being fully rewired, and with every switch and outlet grounded.

          The main breakers are now on an outside wall, on the back porch. I have installed a new breaker in the basement, and am slowly transferring all the wiring to it. I live for the day I can remove the outside panels!

          The third floor will have its own breaker panel, and I am now discussing having mini-beaker panels for each bedroom because they are SO far from the basement panel.

  4. Ross, the house Bailey and I live in has three sets of those push-button switches (that we know of). One downstairs controls the front porch light and stair light, one controls just the stair light, and the third controls the upstairs porch light. It would make sense that at least the downstairs switch is not original, given the house’s conversion into apartments displaced what would have been its original position. The same could also go for the one that controls the stair light, but that one didn’t need to move when the house was apartmentized.

    The porch light, though, would have no reason to have been altered, though. The face plate also matches the other two, which makes me curious whether they’re original or not. I’ve always kind of assumed they were, but maybe tonight when I get home I’ll take one off and see if there’s a date stamped anywhere.

    Also, did you ever find an exact year the house I live in was built? I really can’t remember if you did or not, but I think knowing when it was built in relation to the Cross House would give some pretty good insight into what kind of switches Mr. Squires preferred to use around that time.

    • I think, think, your house is 1894.

      If there are any switches with face plates these would all be later than 1890s because it does not appear that face plates were available in the 1890s. I think.

  5. A far as I know from my own massive rewire, the push buttons and antique outlets can be grounded, the turn switches cannot (i.e. we couldn’t figure out how). We had one original turn switch in the basement, and several antique pushbuttons. Our house had no electrical originally (although it got it very, very early), so I have no way to date the turn switch vs the pushbuttons. All this to say, we removed the turn switch for the electrical inspection, and reinstalled it as soon as all the inspections were over!

  6. “Why can’t the finished Cross House reflect 123-years of design?”

    I vaguely remember mentioning this same sentiment back in October while visiting (I think the conversation was regarding the kitchen). I love your commitment to the “historical narrative” and you have gone above and beyond. You also need to keep that precious piece of history safe. How sad would that be if 1890’s light switches caused an unthinkable disaster.

    BTW – I had to laugh when I started reading this post – the vintage lighting guy never gave a thought to period correct light switches!! I usually enjoy your posts as an observer – but I couldn’t resist on this one ????

    Thanks for brightening my night!

    From the unrelated Clinton

  7. Just had another thought – how about just making her a “smart house” and let Alexa turn your lights on and off ! LOL. ????

  8. My dad’s house, built in 1870’s, has mostly knob & tube wiring. Not sure when it was wired, but the original power came from a Delco plant (early generator) & a wall of glass jar batteries, maybe around WW1. This was replaced in 1929 when grid-tied power came by the farm. All of the upstairs rooms have a sconce with a turn key right by the door. The attic has a switch like the upper right one in the first picture. Closets and utility areas have pull chain light sockets. The downstairs has a mishmash of wiring through the ages. Scary to say the least. I used to take pictures of the overloaded electric sockets (think Christmas Vacation) and send them to friends for laughs. He truly has a electrical guardian angel.

  9. Nothing would look more out of place in your home than the modern dimmer light switch. Talking about confusing the “historical narrative.” Classic Accents makes reproduction push button light switches. We’ve had them for over 30 years. They are grounded. OK, update the “historical narrative” to say– 1920- add the push button switches. No one will gasp when they see them as they would if they encountered the modern, inappropriate dimmer light switches. The new switches do not respect the character of the house.

    • My darling Doug,

      How do obviously non-historical switches confuse the historical narrative? No one will think that Lutron dimmers with glowing LED touch bars are from 1894!

      However, adding 1920s push-button switches would confuse the narrative as 99.9% of people would think they were original. EEK!

  10. OMG, a post where I actually know enough to maybe contribute something!!

    I’ve been researching electric switches, and since my house did not get electricity until around 1910, I am probably going with the pushbuttons, at least where they will show.

    I did find a website recently that discusses in depth the early “electrification” of American homes, and I hope you don’t mind if I share a link or two.

    The first link shows an example of some of the first domestic light switches, which look amazingly like the one in your phone closet.

    The second link is to the webpage describing various first-generation lights, switches, etc.

    My g-grandmother’s house was wired around 1910, and had surface-mounted knob and tube wiring like pictured on the webpage.

    In the end, whatever you choose to go with will be the right choice, as long as you are happy with it!

    Here.

    Here.

      • No thanks needed, but you’re very welcome! We have a laundry room/pantry off of the kitchen that has no wall switch, the ceiling fixture hangs on a cord from a porcelain socket with a twist switch, so I fully understand why folks were willing to spend the extra money for a wall switch! Nothing like walking through the darkness, waving your hands in the air over your head like an idiot, hoping that your fingers find the light before your toes find the washing machine! 🙂 I also uncovered an electric socket in my dining room floor (!), and I’m pretty sure that it is from when the house was first wired; it is the type shown in the article, basically a porcelain screw-in socket to accommodate the early electric cords with the male screw-in fitting. Interesting, yes…but I wish they hadn’t put it in the floor.

  11. Sooooo….. inquiring minds want to know if the walls are concealing any more secrets!! They were hiding the secret of the gas/electric lighting, are they hiding evidence of wall switches? How were wall sconces turned on? Each on their own, or as a pair?

    I’m going to guess that a variety of switches were used. Fancier ones in public rooms, and basic ones in rooms like the kitchen.

    Hmm…. what kind of lighting did the basement have? How fancy did basements get in fancy houses?

    • Good questions!

      The light switch in the telephone closet is the only original switch I have ever found.

      I have never once thought about the lighting in the basement! It would have been VERY plain. Was it also gas/electric? I do not know. On the original drawing of the basement there is no indication of lighting. On the second floor drawing (I don’t have the first floor) there are little G markings where lighting was (G for gas, but the fixtures were all gas/electric).

      The electric sockets on the gas/electric wall sconces would have had, most likely, a turn-key switch.

      All the electric sockets on the gas/electric chandeliers I have purchased also have turn-key sockets. Does this mean there were almost no wall switches in the Cross House? This was common with early electric lighting.

      Oh, and as to your funny last question: my fancy house did not have a fancy basement! Only one room was finished, I think, albeit plainly (the laundry room). Because the basement was wholly rebuilt in the early 1950s as motel rooms, almost all original features have been lost. The basement did have plaster-on-lath ceilings (all now gone) but I cannot tell if these had been original or were part of the motel renovations.

  12. I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but I did an internet search for 1890’s era light switches. Pushbutton switches were in use then, and therefore will not confuse the historical narrative. I replaced all the switches in my house with pushbutton ones and am very pleased with them. Of course, I am certain there are other varieties of switches. I just today watched the movie ‘Psycho’ and at the end of the movie, Lila Crane searches the basement. You will see old-fashioned switches in the scene. I have seen those kind of switches when I was a child. If you can find reproductions, I think they would work well in your own basement.

    • I have no objection to anybody bursting my bubble!

      Can you supply a link to what you found?

      Also, is a movie set a place to expect historical accuracy?

      • Sometimes, but not always. I noticed the doors had modern locks (not mortise locks) with period hardware. And the placement of the porch posts on the Bates home is improbable.

        Try looking up the website Rexophone.com. It shows the switches you were interested in.

        [Ross: Mike, above, provided a link to an incredible Rexophone article perfectly summarizing the whole issue.]

        On another website, I read that pushbutton switches were used in the 1890’s.

        [Ross: Can you provide a link to the article?]

        Many rooms in the 1890’s would not have had switches at all. That is why early light fixtures often had switches on each arm. I don’t think you will want to duplicate this inconvenience.

        [Ross: The Rexophone article Mike linked to agrees. And, no, do not wish to duplicate this inconvenience!]

        I did not search for a source of reproduction or antique light switches.

        Best wishes on whatever you decide.

        [Ross: Thank you!]

  13. Ross, I am sure you are aware that Classic Accents manufactures brand new push-button light switches and cover plates. I did a cursory search, and did not find much history on these. However, the Old House Journal may have published articles in the past. If you go to Classic Accent’s website, under Frequently asked questions, the very last question has a very abbreviated history.

    • Thank you.

      I went to the site and it states:

      The push button switch began being installed in homes as early as 1891 and was the most popular switch used in homes through the 1920’s. The push button switch was eventually phased out by the toggle switch by the 1950’s.

      However, they offer no backup for this, and nothing I have read in the last day indicates that push-button switches, of a type I picture above, were available in the early 1890s.

      Also, because the Cross House was SO up-to-date, if push-button switches were available why wasn’t one in the telephone closet?

      My skepticism might well be unwarranted, as I knew nothing about the subject 24-hours ago!

      • Our house (1913) was built with both gas and knob-and-tube electric lighting. All the public parts of the house had the common push button style switches. The garage, however, was built several years after the house, also wired knob-and-tube, but employed a twist-style switch similar to yours. This suggests that even after push buttons became common, twist switches remained in use for less fancy areas, probably being cheaper.

        I’ve replaced some of the more worn original push buttons and non-original toggle switches in all the public parts of the house with Classic Accents reproductions. I’ve been reasonably satisfied, although they don’t have quite the same crisp “snap” sound as the originals. I bought a few reproduction raw brass cover plates from House of Antique Hardware, but was disappointed to find they did not have the same crisp bevels as our extant originals, so I’ve since replaced them all with salvage originals from eBay.

        • You wrote: “was disappointed to find they did not have the same crisp bevels as our extant originals, so I’ve since replaced them all with salvage originals from eBay.”

          You are, truly, a kindred spirit!

          And I know JUST what you mean about those crisp bevels!

  14. I think the switch at the telephone closet is probably the original type that would have been used…but most lighting would have probably had a toggle switch at the source.

    Put some thought into hiding lighting switches…it’s 2017…you can probably turn your lights on and off with your phone! 🙂

  15. Do you have early photos taken inside the house that might shed light on the subject? As the house was built early in the electric era, it is probable the electric fittings were ordered from a supply house and they used whatever brand that supplier sold.

    • ZOUNDS!

      So, what you found (!) seems to confirm the date when classic push-button switches were invented: 1901!

      Oh, and I am brave! Well, at least in removing vintage switches! Please stand by!

  16. So what is your original switch? At the first glance it looks like a rotary but upon closer inspection I’m tempted to think push/pull switch [Ross: it is the latter], something I’ve NEVER seen or heard before! I’d decidedly vote for original, although I’m a bit surprised how simple it looks – upscale accessories of the era were often incredibly fancy as far as I can tell, stamped and engraved brass, painted porcelaine and whatnot.

    Those old brass switches usually weren’t earthed (grounded) because they were insulated instead – just like a light socket they had a cardboard or phenolic sleeve behind the metal. As long as this is intact they’re fairly safe. Toggles with a metal handle are a bit scarier.

    Regarding the toggle switch and its history, it seems that in the US it was indeed first patented in 1917 but I distinctly remember reading that they were available in Europe some 20 years earlier than that. In Britain they were fairly common while on the continent rotary switches prevailed, often until after WWII. The last ones I’ve seen (apart from historic replicas) were produced and installed as late as 1980 in areas like laundry rooms, garages and cellars! Toggle switches (and by that I’m referring to the ooooold DC-rated type that operates with a loud “snap”) then enjoyed a brief spur of popularity in the 1950s but were soon replaced by rocker-type switches with increasingly large rockers.

  17. I wish I had read this article that was linked this morning! This afternoon I saw some of the brass covers for push switches at a vintage/ antique store and some of them were the round flip open ones that would have covered the socket in the wall! I may have to run back and get them just to be able to show people some history! Wow!

  18. Trying to confirm when push button switches were invented led me to this blog. It looks like you settled on 1901? Our house is also from the early 1890s and we were planning on doing some push button switches, but won’t now. Sorry if I missed it, but am curious what you ended up going with?

    • Did your house have electrical lighting (that’s about all it would have been used for in the 1890s) when it was built? A lot of houses originally built without electricity had it added later, and would have used the contemporary technology of the time. That philosophy may allow you more freedom in choosing the details.

      I believe pushbutton and toggle switches are the only early styles still available today. I have not seen reproductions of the early rotary switches.

      Our current house is circa 1926, and I was tempted to use reproduction pushbutton switches (as I did with our prior circa 1913 houses), but after further investigation, the original switches in our house were all toggles (those being the “modern” style at the time). I was fortunate to find some new-old-stock Paulding toggle switches with the old loud click action on ebay to use throughout the house.

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