Early Electrical Lighting in Homes

I WROTE THIS BACK IN 1997.  AT FIRST I THOUGHT I MIGHT WRITE AN ARTICLE FOR “AMERICAN HERITAGE OF INVENTION AND TECHNOLOGY.”  AS IT PROGRESSED, I DECIDED IT MAY WORK BETTER AS A RETROSPECTIVE IN AN ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING JOURNAL.  I THEN DECIDED THAT THE ARTICLE I WANTED TO WRITE REALLY DIDN’T FIT IN ANYWHERE, SO I FINISHED IT UP, DIDN’T BOTHER TO PULL TOGETHER REFERENCES, THEN LEFT IT IN THE GREAT UNKNOWN OF MY HARD DRIVE.  I RECENTLY RAN ACROSS IT.  SINCE MY BLOG HAS VERY LOW EDITORIAL STANDARDS, IT FITS HERE.  ENJOY YOUR READ.

Tom Edison introduced commercially viable incandescent lights in 1879.  The next forty years saw many homes in urban America move to the new electric light.  The lighting hardware found in homes during this period was similar, yet far removed from the lights in your house today.

 

 By observing the history of a seemingly simple item in our lives we can learn some interesting things about how people lived in earlier days.  We will do this here by following the application of incandescent electric lighting in homes and stores.  As with every new, expensive technology, electricity was first used in businesses, where it could increase profits rather than comfort.  It cut down on maintenance and risk of fire in factories, mills, and other places not hospitable to gas lighting.  It appeared in New York theaters (sometimes only on the outside and lobby to attract customers).  After a few years the electric light began moving into the home.

 Pendant Lights

 Although many homes had chandeliers, bracket lights, and other fixtures similar to what we use today, a large number of homes and stores up though 1920 used what was called drop lights or pendant lights.  These consisted of an exposed bulb in a keyed socket  This socket hung on twisted cotton insulated cord from a ceiling rosette.  The rosette is a round porcelain device that screwed to the wooden ceiling.  The house wiring, whether exposed on the ceiling or concealed in the attic, connected to screws on the rosette.  The drop cord connected through the rosette to the house wiring.  Generally, there was no wall switch in such installations; one walked to the center of the room and twisted the socket key to turn on the light.

 Pendant lights in a barber shop about 1900

Several pendant lights hanging from ceiling rosettes

Several early ceiling rosettes.  The two on the right are made so that the wiring can be easily tied off and connected to the exposed terminals.  The rosette on the left is a two-piece unit with a bayonet lock.  

The electrician can wire the light to the bottom half of the rosette at a table, then lock the bottom to the top of the rosette at the ceiling.  This was particularly handy when wiring larger light figures.

 

Several vintage rosette installations

Here some folks at the Dallas Times Herald used rope to pull pendent lights over to their desks from the middle of the room.

Light Switches

 Today we may find it inconvenient to walk through a darkened room and reach up to find a pendant light with a turn key.  This remained, however, standard fare until the 1920s in many homes.

 The search in the dark was a paradigm for gas or kerosene lighting.  Unless the home owner had elaborate electric igniters on gas fixtures, each light was lit by hand.  At least before electricity, you had a match to see what you were doing. Electricity’s built in convenience of remote control was not exploited for years in most homes.

 Switches on the wall at an entrance were considered a luxury.  Wiring books of the time considered them “the most expensive option” for controlling lights.  Early switches surface mounted to the wall.  They had a porcelain base and a key-shaped handle that turned with a twist.  Many times exposed wiring would  run down the wall from the lights to the switch.

Typical surface mounted light switches of the early 20th century.

Before jumping to such an expensive option as a wall switch, period wiring manuals suggested a pendent switch or a pull switch as a step up from the key switch on a pendent light.  The pull switch mounted to the ceiling and attached to the exposed wiring.  It had a long chain or cord that extended to within reach.  A pull would turn on an entire circuit of lights.  This provided a certain comfort level to the cautious user since all electricity was far away on the ceiling. 

One cord can turn off the light at the stairs from the first or second floor.

Some ceiling mounted switches.  The switch in the center could support the light figure.

The pendent switch hung from a rosette and a twisted electrical cord.

 

Ceiling and pendent switches from an early electrical book.

I used this photo in one of my earlier blogs.  It is an amalgamated gas/electric fixture.  Note the pendent switch.

Here is a suggestion from the same electrical book that wouldn’t make the lady of the house very happy.

Even the White House did not initially have the convenience of wall switches when it was first wired for electric lighting.  A well known photograph of President McKinley shows him standing near a chandelier with a pendent switch dangling from its center. 

The White House also suffered from the same lack of convenience outlets typical to homes of the time.  The McKinley bedroom had a central light fixture with a current tap and dangling cord feeding a reading lamp.  More about current taps later.

The Moody Mansion of Galveston, Texas provides some interesting insights into home wiring in the 1890s.  Moody Mansion was constructed and wired in 1895.  During a recent restoration, the original lighting components were carefully preserved.  There are nearly no wall light switches on the main floor.  Instead, the house has a number of porcelain sub-panels housing four  switches each, as well as lead fuse wire for each switch.  These panels are hidden in decorative wall panels that may be locked with a key.

A servant could access the panel at dusk, turn on the appropriate lights, then lock the panel to keep curious children away.  This makes perfect sense when compared with other forms of lighting in that age.  One did not extinguish the burners in a six light kerosene or gas chandelier, just because the room would be vacant for five minutes or so. 

Eventually pendent switches, ceiling switches, and surface mounted twist switches gave way to recessed wall switches protected by electrical boxes like we use today.  Before the lever switches we now use became popular, push button light switches held sway.  Here are two from the 1910s.

 

Current Taps and Convenience Outlets

There were originally no electrical wall outlets in homes since electricity was first used only for lighting.  When appliances such as irons and fans appeared, they had cords with plugs that looked like light bulb bases.  The happy owner would unscrew a light bulb and screw in the appliance. 

You may be able to make breakfast in the dining room with those new electric appliances, but you’ll have to do it in the dark.

Here’s a bedroom in the White House.  See that cord dangling down from the chandelier?  Someone unscrewed a light bulb to power the desk lamp below.

Downstairs in an office we find this mess.

Look closely and you will see that work lights are being powered by the overhead lights—yes they could have used some electrical outlets.

Here is a guy hanging some of those new Christmas lights.  Note that they are plugged into the wall light behind him.

Some early screw plugs for appliances

Along with some later examples

Soon two-way adapters appeared on the market which allowed both a bulb and an appliance to share the same socket.  The Benjamin Company made beautiful brass and porcelain orbs that served this purpose. 

Here is a Benjamin at work

They were popular and show up in many vintage photos of stores, bars, and other interiors.

As people found more uses for electricity, many rooms looked like Maypoles, with wires stretching out from the central light to fans, toasters, and eventually, radios.  My mother in law grew up in such a house.  It was built by her father in 1905 and wired for electricity in 1915.  There were no wall switches or outlets; only pendent lights in each room.  She remembers the rooms possessing a festive air with all the extra wire hanging about.

Other odd devices appeared.  Various manufacturers made lamp holders with special plug-type sockets for easy attachment of appliances.  Matching plugs were sold to attach to each appliance.  Few were compatible with other brands or with any modern plugs.

Eventually, wall outlets for appliances began to appear.  Typical units had a brass door that covered a regular light bulb socket. 

A screw-socket outlet next to the wall outlet that became a standard.

These were not very safe for children (but at the time few things were).  David Johnson, the late Head of Electrical Engineering at Louisiana Tech University had his first contact with electricity though just such an outlet.  As a child, Dr Johnson watched an electrician check circuits by sticking his much-callused finger into one of these wall sockets.  The young David tried the same technique with his tender finger, producing memorable results.

Standards for wall outlets took time to develop.  Here are a few of the assorted incompatible sockets that were available in 1914.

If you would like to learn more about the unruly world of how electrical outlets became standardized in America, read Dr. Fred E. H. Schroeder’s excellent article “More Small Things Forgotten: Domestic Electrical Plugs and Receptacles, 1881-1931” published in the periodical “Technology and Choice” published in 1991 by the University of Chicago.

Candlepower

Until about 1910, light bulbs were rated and sold by Candle Power rather than Watts.  Since there were very few electrical appliances in most homes other than lights, even light sockets and other paraphernalia were rated in Candle Power rather than Watts.  One way to identify very old light sockets is to see if they are imprinted with “50 CP” rather than “250 Watts.”  In the nineteenth century Edison rated his generators in candlepower rather than watts.  This provided a rather simple method of sizing systems since the only devices you would generally power were 8 or 16 CP lamps.

A light socket rated in candlepower

Early Installations and Configurations

Electricity did not come to America on a citywide basis, provided by utility companies.  As is often the case, new technologies are first exploited by businesses, later moving into the home.  There were few citywide providers. Businesses, industries, large public buildings, and wealthy homes commissioned individual lighting plants for their own use.  Industries installed electricity to reduce the maintenance, soot, or danger that came with gas lighting.  Commercial concerns used electricity to attract customers with a modern look.  Although the Edison companies insisted otherwise, electricity was generally the more expensive method of lighting.  It was not until the tungsten bulb was introduced in the 1910s that some experts conceded that electricity could compete financially with all other forms of lighting. 

In the early days of electric lighting, one did not buy industry-standard equipment at an electrical supplier and engage the services of an electrician.  The person desiring to light a large home, business, or public building would commission a company such as Edison or his competitors.  The selected contractor would manufacturer and supply all the generators, light bulbs, sockets, switches, fuse cutouts, and the like.  As a result, little equipment was interchangeable between makers.  The manufacturer provided devices at his voltage, his configurations (series or parallel), and at whatever frequency he desired (starting out with DC).  Some early sockets had no identification as to manufacturer or electrical ratings since they were provided as part of a system designed and installed by their maker. 

An unmarked light socket from the 1890s for light bulbs using the Thompson-Houston style base.

Later, identifications such as “Edison Patents” appeared, but still with no electrical ratings.  Still later the working voltage may be stated, and eventually the current rating in Candle Power.  There were at one time at least fourteen different types of light bulb bases with matching sockets used in the United States.

All of this made standardization very difficult as the industry grew.  In the 1890s, when modern electrical suppliers began to emerge, lamp manufacturer would advertise their wares “available in any base–any voltage.”  An entire catalog page may be devoted to itemizing all the variants of a single wattage bulb. 

This also led to the odd custom of supplying lighting fixtures without sockets.  Early catalogs display a broad array of fixtures with more than a dozen types of finishes from antique bronze to Pompeii copper.  After selecting fixtures, the buyer then flipped over to the front of the catalog to specify what brand and type of light sockets to add.  These could be bought in a finish that hopefully matched the fixture, or could be shipped to the fixture maker to be custom finished.

There was a concerted effort at beginning of the 20th century to consolidate the types of lamp bases to one. Industry leaders realized that this wild assortment of lamp bases hindered industry profits and growth.   It was found that the Edison screw base was the most predominant socket by far.  The Thomson-Houston and Westinghouse bases trailed behind the Edison.  All other bases held a relatively small percentage of the market. 

Some of the competing bases used on light bulbs of different brands in the Nineteenth Century

Thompson-Houston style socket and light bulb

The competitors—Thompson-Houston, Edison, and Westinghouse style light sockets

Adapters were built to convert Thomson-Houston and Westinghouse sockets to accept Edison bulbs.  The base we use today became the industry standard.  Occasionally T+H sockets can be found in antique fixtures, having survived the twentieth century only because of the Edison adapters still firmly attached.

Thompson-Houston adapters.  Many have a ratchet lock that hold them firmly into the socket once installed.

Electrical Utilities

One curious fact about early electrical utilities is that many provided lamps for the users.  Indeed, some early electrical utilities did not sell bulbs at all.  You simply brought in your burned out bulb for a replacement.  This tradition of obtaining bulbs from the electrical utility persists even today with some.  Southwestern Public Service Company of Amarillo, Texas markets an assortment of light bulbs through their business offices in small Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma towns (at least as of 1997 when I wrote this article). 

It took some time for our present day expectations of electricity to be set.  Some small utilities would turn on the power at dusk and run it until some time at night (unless the utility also powered street cars).  This made sense as electricity was only used for lighting.  At the turn of the century the electrical utility in Pampa, Texas would run the generator on Saturday as well to brighten up the stores when the farmers came to town to shop.  In Lubbock, Texas the same steam engine used to run the machinery at the ice house during the day ran the electrical generator for the town at night. 

As appliances appeared, this tradition changed.  One of the first appliances to catch on was the electric iron.  Small utilities would condescend to generate power during the day on Tuesdays, the typical wash day for many households.  Electric fans were most needed during the heat of day.  Eventually 24 hour a day service became standard.  By the time of Edison’s death it was a necessity.  Alexander Bell’s demise was noted by a short shutdown of telephones nationwide.  When Edison died in 1931, a similar plan for electrical power was vetoed.  Too many lives, hospitals, and livelihoods were tied to electrical service to voluntarily interrupt it.

Lighting Levels

The homeowner accustomed to kerosene or oil lighting found electric lamps quite bright.  The expectation of lighting levels has changed quite a bit from the 1800s, and even the early 1900s.  One Edison customer installed one 8 candle power (CP) bulb per four jail cells.  The bar-wall construction of the cells allowed one fixture to serve four.  If this made the prison “as dark as a prison” the expectation was not a lot brighter for industries and homes.  Other Edison customers used a single 16 CP to provide safety lighting for operating heavy machinery. 

Lighting design books from the 1920s suggest a single 40 watt light for the living room, with a 20 watt unit for halls.  As lighting expectations rose, so did the loading (or overloading) of older homes. 

Wiring Methods

Sally Jordan’s boarding house in Menlo Park, New Jersey was the first home to be wired for Edison’s new electric light.  A wiring method was used that would persist for several decades.  The wiring technique came to be known as cleat wiring, or exposed wiring. 

Cleats, about 3” long had nail holes in each end, and two recesses for wire.  Very early cleats were wood, soon replaced by porcelain.  Two of these would be nailed together to the ceiling, pinching the two wires between them.  The wires were held in mid air slightly off the ceiling surface. 

Surface mounted rosettes had exposed terminals that were the same dimensions as the wire recesses in the cleats.  Surface mounted wall switches as well had a similar spacing. 

Light sockets with exposed power connections for cleat-style wiring.  Don’t touch!

Stores and some houses continued to use exposed cleat wiring for some time. 

Nice bar!  Notice the white exposed wiring on the right side of the ceiling.

Exposed wiring mounted to porcelain knobs

Surviving cleat wiring in an old store

Better homes and commercial establishments began to move to concealed wiring.  Concealed wiring used the same cleats, as well as porcelain knobs to tie off the wiring.  The knobs were fastened to the framing with a nail that went through their middle.  They looked like smaller brothers of the insulators seen on power poles.  Whenever the wires extended through wood beams, porcelain tubes were used.  This type of concealed wiring became known as knob-and-tube.  Later, split knobs came into use that allowed an electrician to install the unit in one operation–simply pinch the wire between the two insulators by nailing them in place.

If knob-and-tube techniques would not get power where you needed it, electrical catalogs offered wooden molding that had slots cut in the back for wiring.  You certainly could get a surprise if you stuck a tack into the wrong part of that molding.

Some early attempts were made at using gas lighting pipes as conduits with limited success.  More often than not, a fine gas chandelier was left in place, gas and all.  Adapters were marketed that replaced the gas burner.  The adapter attached to or under the gas jet, and provided a bracket for installation of an electrical socket.  The wiring wound around the tubing of the chandelier back to the ceiling.  There was a significant market for dual fixtures with both gas and electric lights.  Modern museum docents like to quip that these were bought before people knew that electricity would catch on.  It is more likely that the dual fixtures allowed the homeowner to weather sometimes erratic electrical service.  Electrical method books of the day gave some advice to the rather sticky installation problems of feeding electricity and gas to such fixtures safely.  To make matters worse, many later gas fixtures were equipped with electric lighters.  These were sparking devices connected to ignition coils (similar to auto ignition systems) controlled by a button on the wall.  These devices used the gas pipe and fixture as a ground return.  Since early fixtures had no safety ground at all, electric strikers made combination gas/electric fixtures even more difficult to wire safely.

Speaking of grounds, there were none in early home wring.  There was no grounded neutral as is the practice (and law) today.  As a consequence, both sides of a 110 VAC service were fused.  A user could blow a fuse, loose all lights in his or her house, and still have lethal current available at any socket.  For that matter, simply turning out a light at the switch left one hot conductor at the socket.  Because of this, many light sockets switched the screw shell leaving the more concealed tip conductor “hot.”  Today’s polarized wiring devices assume the shell is grounded, and switch the tip conductor.  A Pass and Seymour socket from 1903 solved this issue by switching both conductors.  Two pole wall switches were also available for the cautious. 

1890s electrical codes required that each light socket be fused.  Allowances were made so that chandeliers with multiple lights only were required to have one fuse.  The easiest way to fuse each fixture was with lead fuse wire in the ceiling rosette.  Although this was a very good safety practice, it eventually gave way to convenience.  Whenever a fixture shorted, the owner had to call in an electrician to take down the light and replace the lead fuse wire in the rosette.

The Moody Mansion in Galveston used fuse cut outs in most of the upstairs closets to provide the level of protection specified in the 1890 Code.

Service Entrances and Loading

A service entrance consisted of an open porcelain switch knife with two screw-type fuses.  These were mounted on the porch, in the entry hall, in the basement, but only occasionally in a closed box.  Hopefully, these open switches were high enough to escape the notice of curious young boys.  They were dangerous enough for adults. 

A surviving open service entrance I ran across.  I like the cord tied to the knob.  To turn off—just jerk the cord!

A 1905 patent date.  Nice!

Until electrical codes forced enlargement of these switches, it was a very tough task to grasp the handle with enough force to open it without touching the exposed copper knives.  Several of these switches I have seen show the evidence that the sorry-but-wiser owner learned to cut off power by twisting the fuses, burning the fuse sockets, but preserving his own nervous system.  Some, like the switch above, have cords attached to lessen the danger of jerking the switch open.

A move towards sanity.  An enclosed service entrance switch in 1922

As an aside, things were certainly safer than the 1880s.  Here is a reproduction of an early Edison fuse block, made of wood.  Kilokat (bulbcollector.com) had an original of one of these on his site at one time.  They also were pictured in an 1883 Scientific American.  The fuse is an actual Nineteenth Century model.

Into the 1920s the watt-hour meter was installed after the service entrance.  This rather safe practice was abandoned once clever home owners learned to wire around the meters.  A typical home may only have one 15 or 20 amp circuit (fused on both sides) to feed all lights.  As electrical appliances and larger wattage bulbs flourished, these houses became severely overloaded.  Dangerous extension cords were strung from room to room for lack of convenience outlets.  Many old homes eventually burned as frustrated owners tightened pennies under blown fuses rather than have the electrical system expanded.  I worked at an antique store during my college years.  The shop was situated in a nice 1890s Victorian home with most of the original wiring, but modern amenities.  Noting the warmth of the fuse box one day, I measured the line voltage.  Instead of 120 volts, the distressed electrical system was delivering about 95.  Fortunately, the old home survived, was rewired, and now houses a law practice.

As early as the mid-1920s articles began to appear urging homeowners to modernize and expand their wiring.

General Electric literature in 1936 enthusiastically encouraged the rewiring older homes. 

GE stated that of the 29 million homes in the United States, 20 were wired for electricity.  However, six out of ten were inadequately wired because of the ever expanding number of electrical appliances. 

Typically, homeowners used ten times more power in 1936 than in 1910.  GE encouraged the installation of wall switches for lights, convenience outlets in every room, and multiple fixtures for more even lighting.

According to GE, the cost for modern wiring was a very low percentage of the cost of a home. 

If electrical usage grew during the 20s and 30s, it jumped quite a bit again in the 1950s when folks began plugging those new window air conditioners into elderly wiring.

This is not to say that all older homes were primitively wired.  The E A Frost mansion of Shreveport, Louisiana was built in 1915 with three and four way switches throughout, screw-type convenience outlets, and automatic switches in the closet doors.  Large homes, however, were the exception.

Conclusion

Many of our grandparents and great grandparents had electricity in their homes.  Electric lighting and power was one of those technical advances that radically changed people’s lives.  But the utility, convenience, and safety of those electrical systems were quite a bit different than what we assume today.

Many thanks to Steve Cunningham for allowing me to copy his extensive collection of early electrical catalogs!