Peter McCarthy Electric Co., Inc. - Specializing in Older Buildings in Chicago
Adventures in Old House Wiring....

Electricity vs. Gas lighting at the Dawn of the 20th Century


“I couldn’t have electricity in the house, I wouldn’t sleep a wink. All those vapors floating about.”
 
"First electricity and now telephones. I sometimes wonder if I'm living in an H.G. Wells novel!" ~ The Dowager Countess of Grantham


I must admit, word for word, no professional pugilist packs a punch as parsimoniously as her Ladyship. Mary and I have been on a Downton Abbey kick for the past several weeks, and I am going to be in severe withdrawal until season three rolls around. Thank goodness Lady Mary and Sir Matthew finally recognized what everyone else saw as the inevitable. She will be a ravishing bride  next year!

While so many of the Dowager's curt remarks put me in stitches, her observations on electricity invading the house were spot on. Why would anyone want it or need it, when the warm glow of gas lighting had been just fine for generations? On this side of the pond, we were asking ourselves the same questions. Indoor lighting that was not candles had been quite a drastic improvement, and in the old folks' memory it may itself been still "new fangled!" After all, Honest Abe reading by candle light was not that far back in the early 1900s. Yet this fellow Edison had created this wonder of the world, or this redundant waste of money, depending on your viewpoint. Then, like now, some folks were quick to embrace it, probably the younger and richer set. (Can you say i pad 3?) I'm sure it was expensive, and there was probably a lot of showing off value in it. I'm sure there were just as many folks who already had light at night, thanks to the warm glow of gas, who thought these electricity folks were just dad-burn fools.

But here in Chicago, the 1893 World's Fair had just drawn a million souls to the brawny city on the lake, full of itself with all the bluster the fastest growing city in the world deserved. The White City, as the fair was called was gorgeous. It was classic. and it was LIT!  You might say the 1893 World's Fair on Chicago's south side was the "coming out party" for electric lighting in the USA. And, boy, did folks love it! The midway was resplendent in the glow of Edison's new miracle that held back the darkness with the flip of a switch. It was fabulous!

This home that we just finished re-wiring is almost a time capsule for looking back at the history of residential electric lighting in Chicago. Built in 1904, just a decade after the Fair closed, in the up-and-coming upper  middle class community of Hyde Park, a stone's throw from Harper's latest attempt at crowning the "hog butcher to the world" with the dignity and legitimacy a great university can bestow. The Midway, itself a legacy of the great Fair, became the University of Chicago's calling card. All of this was less than a mile the fabulous new home built just after the turn of the century!

As we fully disassembled the electrical system, opening up and removing literally every wire in the place, we discovered the remnants of a gas lighting system long since abandoned. That in itself is not rare for buildings we work on here in Hyde Park. But what made this one so special was were charged with fully taking it apart, cutting and chopping any plaster walls or ceilings that got in the way. We found several ceiling light junction boxes that had been completely plastered over in a 1941 remodel. We found long buried gas pipes that had once lit sconce lights over the fireplace, and most interesting this strange hybrid electrical junction box with a notch  for running the gas pipe right into it. You can see the pictures above. Patrick, the owner of the house, was as geeky and inquisitive as I was (He is a UC prof and Ph.D. in the hard sciences, so he comes by it rather honestly)  I had always known, after 25 years of working in these vintage buildings, that there were gas lighting pipes that had provided the lighting before electricity. I have seen hundreds of ceiling light boxes hung on old gas nipples. (Many customers have told me about how the electric wires were run in the old gas pipes. Knowing the impossibility of pulling a very thick cloth wire through a hard 90 degree bend with no radius, in a 3/8 interior diameter gas pipe, I just smile)

But even though I have seen these ceiling electric boxes with gas nipples emanating from their centers all over the place in the old buildings, I was never really sure how it actual happened. The narrative I had pieced together was there had been gas lighting, and then they discovered electricity, and folks dumped gas for electricity. The fact that all these ceiling center locations had pre-existing gas pipes already must have just been because that was the natural place to keep the light when electricity was super-imposed over the old system. But mechanically, it didn't seem to make much sense. It would have created a huge mess and required a ton of cutting, notching and re-building ceilings and walls to retrofit these gas lighting systems with the black threaded cast iron pipe I was used to seeing. Here, at Patrick's house, we saw what seemed to be very compelling evidence that a dual system of gas and electricity in the same box from the outset was what we were looking at. (I guess the explosive nature of that combination had not really settled on them yet.) 

I told Patrick how some day I am gonna take a sabbatical and go to the IIT library and go deep into the archives to read all the literature on electrical systems from the 1890s-1950s. I just had never found the time. Patrick took the ball and ran with it, and he found great sources on the development of electric lighting in Chicago. Apparently, when electricity was still in its infancy, there were some folks who were willing to install it, but insisted there be a gas lighting system as well, just to be on the safe side. Pat referred me to a book on the history of electrification in Chicago. I will buy it and read it soon, and report back. I understand the gas utilities and the electricity boys ( Samuel Insull and his crew) fought bitterly to see who would be the lighting king of Chicago. It is late, and I am tired. But I will write more when I can hold my eyes open and have more specific information.

I know how much of Chicago history, and US history, is the story of Progress. Scientific innovation. Out with the old and in with the new! I can see the same battle playing out between the automobile and the horse, at roughly the same time. As an adult in business, I can see all the vested interests lining up to do battle through their lobbyists, their PR men, and their politicians. (and perhaps their guys with the long brown coats and derby's) The simple narrative of "Electricity came, and it was a better mouse trap, so gas had to go" does not begin to do justice to the gnashing of teeth that ensued as a result of this intense and epic struggle. Fortunes were made and lost. Nobody gives up his fortune without a hell of a fight.

I am very glad, personally, that my great grandfather, "Telephone Jack" O'Brien, who had come down from Canada to work for Western Union in 1892 and found himself and a dozen other men organizing a union of electrical workers in Chicago in 1902, had the foresight to place his bet and stake his future on the winning side.
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