Gaslighting in America
A Guide for Historic Preservation
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"Pillar Lights" from the Archer, Warner, Miskey and Company catalogue, 1857-1859. Plate 50

This plate of "Pillar Lights" (plate 20 of Patterns) shows six fixed standards and four in the form of figurines, that could be used either as fixed or as movable lights. Noted under each of the latter four are both a "Pillar" number and price and a "Flexible" number and price. Rubber hoses supplied lamps as early as 1844 as attested by Thomas Webster's Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy:

Gas lamps may, to a certain extent, be made portable, by having a flexible tube of caoutchouc [rubber] coming from the service gas pipe, and reaching to the place where the gas is required to burn, where it may supply a stand like that of an ordinary candlestick or lamp. This stand may be detached when required, by having one cock at the service pipe, and another at the stand. These are found useful for the desk in offices or other places lighted with gas. [82]

The plate is interesting not only for the variety of designs it displays but also because it shows that as late as 1857 the nomenclature of gas fixtures had not been settled. Whereas Starr, Fellows and Company used the term "lamps" for a few of their stands, the word "lamp" does not appear among these "pillars." Obviously, Archer, Warner, and Miskey regarded the word "lamp as signifying oil lamp and tried to get around the problem presented by gaslamps through use of the term "flexible."

These fixtures were all finished in greenish-bronze with accents of gilt.

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittlesey Fund, 1958. (click on image for a PDF version)

Photograph of an interior with ca. 1865 lamp and chandelier. Plate 51

This photograph, taken by C. H. Currier around 1900, shows an interior of a house near Boston with lamp and chandelier probably dating from the mid-1860s. The chandelier has an extra cock to which the connecting hose, or "tube," of the lamp is fastened, thus leaving all three chandelier burners free for use. The visible portion of the inscription on the base of the lamp, or "flexible," is "Patriot," and perhaps the preceding word is "Young." The figure of the boy color-bearer may represent the possibly apocryphal Union drummer-boy who seized his regiment's fallen flag from the hands of a dying color-bearer and bore it bravely forward against the Rebel foe.

All of the burners in the photograph appear to be of the governor type used less frequently in America than in Great Britain. [83] The particular brand seen here was called the "Empire" burner. Governor burners were designed to assure an even flow of gas to the individual jet, but they were, if one may judge from contemporary visual evidence and extant fixtures, not at all common in the United States. Compared to ordinary fishtail or batswing burners, they were quite expensive. Both the lamp and the chandelier have been refitted with late 19th-century wire shade holders and opal glass shades.

An attractive painting titled "Visiting Grandma" by J.A.S. Oertel is dated 1865 and shows a gaslamp attached to a chandelier in precisely the same way as the one in this photograph. [84] The lamp in the painting has a figure of the god Mercury upholding what appears to be a hexagonal shade composed of lithopane panels set in a metal frame.

From the Library of Congress. (click on image for a PDF version)

Monson's Patent Extension Fixture, 1860. Plate 52

The quest for the perfect extension gas fixture continued, suggesting that the water seal counterweighted fixtures and the simpler cork seal slide fixtures had certain defects. A major defect, of course, was leakage. Monson's patent, for which this advertisement appeared in 1860, was intended as an improvement over the rather clumsy device of counterweights. [85] Note that the text stresses safety and durability. Evidently Monson's patent fixtures were used in the buildings erected by the U.S. Treasury Department around 1860, because Major Bowman's endorsement states that they were not merely recommended but actually adopted. [86] A later publication records the success of such devices:

Gas escapes frequently occur with water-slide chandeliers, when the water which seals the joints evaporates. The leakage of gas can be avoided either by frequent additions of water, or by putting on the water some sweet oil of glycerine, which retards the evaporation. While water-joint pendants are quite common in England and on the Continent, they are not much used in our country, where either cork-slide pendants or telescopic extension-joint chandeliers are preferred, which dispense entirely with the chain and counterbalance weight and the water seal. [87]

Reprint from G. and D. Cook and Company's Illustrated Catalogue of Carriages and Special Business
1860. Dover Pictorial Archive Series. (click on image for a PDF version)

Cornelius and Baker chandelier in the Vermont Statehouse, 1859. Plate 53

In 1859, Cornelius and Baker supplied the gas fixtures for the rebuilt Vermont Capitol at Montpelier through their Boston agent N. W. Turner at a cost of $2,166. (A pair of 3-foot-high bronze figures of an Indian and a Hunter, cast from the same molds as those supporting the clock in the new House of Representatives in Washington, were also supplied to Vermont at a cost of $75 each. [88]) Fortunately, many of the Vermont Statehouse fixtures remain in situ, including the large gilt-bronze and bronze chandelier and brackets seen in this 1860 photograph of the House of Representatives. The statuettes represent, among others, Washington, Franklin, Columbia, Trappers, and Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys. The brackets below the gallery balustrade each have a figurine about 10 inches high. One, in compliment to the Vermont-born sculptor Hiram Powers, is a small version of his famous Greek Slave. [89]

By 1859, Cornelius and Baker had supplied the lighting fixtures for nearly all of the state capitols in the United States. The chandeliers and brackets of the Ohio Capitol at Columbus contained, among other embellishments, statuettes of Prudence, Science, Commerce, Liberty, America, and the state's first white settler, Simon Kenton. An American eagle with stars suspended from his beak formed a conspicuous part of the ornamentation. In Nashville, the Tennessee Capitol had in its Hall of Representatives a Cornelius and Baker chandelier 15 feet in diameter decorated with buffaloes, Indians, corn, cotton, and tobacco plants. Clearly, allegory and symbolism could hardly have been carried further in the design of chandeliers. [90] The prestige of such commissions, including the lighting of the U.S. Capitol itself, shows the standing of the firm just before the outbreak of the Civil War. It was then exporting fixtures to India, China, Cuba, South America, and Upper and Lower Canada. [91]

Courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society. (click on image for a PDF version)

Cornelius and Baker chandelier in the U.S. Capitol, President's Room, ca. 1860. Plate 54

Cornelius and Baker's apparatus for lighting the new House of Representatives in the U.S. Capitol was ready by February 2, 1858. The firm provided curving pipes with jets spaced so closely that all could be ignited from a small pilot light. That maze of piping was suspended above the inner stained glass skylight that formed the ceiling of the House. [92] A similar arrangement of 2,500 burners, set so that they could be "lighted instantaneously," was installed above the Senate chamber. [93]

The lighting of other areas of the Capitol in Washington was more conventional. The chandelier shown here just after its electrification in 1896 hangs in the President's Room in the Senate wing. Cornelius and Baker were paid $900 for this 18-branched chandelier on April 9, 1864. It has an astonishing population of bronze figures arranged in three tiers. Their costumes range from almost total nudity, through 17th-century armor, to 18th-century backwoods costume and formal dress on the lower tier. The middle group is composed of putti dancing and playing musical instruments, and the larger-scaled figures of the upper tier include a pioneer or hunter and an Indian.

It would be reasonable to feel that this splendidly rich fixture needed no further elaboration. However, in 1915 the lily was gilded by the addition of six more arms and innumerable prisms. This "improvement" brought the total number of lights to an unnecessary 33, 24 of which were visible. The other lights were indirect and concealed in the bowl. That work of supererogation cost $845 in 1915. [94] The shades now on the President's Room chandelier are of a pattern typical of the 1880s.

From the Library of Congress, collection of the Architect of the Capitol. (click on image for a PDF version)

Cornelius and Baker Indian warrior chandelier by J. G. Bruff, the Treasury Building, 1859. Plate 55

Not all fixtures manufactured by Cornelius and Baker were designed by employees of the firm. In 1859 Joseph Goldsborough Bruff (1804-1889), who was then classified as an "ornamental draughtsman," designed a series of chandeliers and brackets under Major A. H. Bowman's direction for the south wing of the U.S. Treasury Building. Bruff left his employment as draftsman in Washington, 1849, recruited 64 men, and formed the Washington City and California Mining Company. He led the expedition overland to California in less time than any other band of 49ers. [95] His gold-seeking, however, was unprofitable.

The details of this chandelier which include Indians armed with bows and arrows and stone tomahawks, wolves, ill-intentioned rattlesnakes, and corn, suggest that Bruff had not forgotten his westward trek. He used these motifs to design an all-American fixture. Cornelius and Baker quoted a price for its manufacture of $50. This quite lavish chandelier was intended for the office of an official of high rank in the Treasury Department. [96]

From the National Archives, Record Group No. 121. (click on image for a PDF version)

Cornelius and Baker Indian hunter chandelier by J. G. Bruff, the Treasury Building, 1859. Plate 56

This chandelier, the most remarkable of all of J. Goldsborough Bruffs designs for the Treasury's south wing, epitomizes the mid-Victorian concept of appropriate allegorical symbolism. The bowl is inscribed with the arms of each state, and the four-sided section at the springing point of the branches is handled in a classical manner, with eagles perched on garlands within star-bordered panels. In the upper zone, an Indian tepee inscribed with pictographs forms the transition from base to stem, and the stem itself is in the form of a dead pine or redwood. This naturalistic treatment forms the setting for the lively sculptural vignettes of Indian life surmounting the branches. Each of the four branches was planned to carry a different group. At the left a mounted Indian spears a buffalo above the lurking form of a cougar. The lightly sketched branch above indicates an Indian on snowshoes drawing his bow as he confronts a stag attacked by dogs, wolves, or coyotes. At the right a mounted Indian shoots a buffalo with bow and arrow, and underneath are wolves. The sketch above the branch shows a mounted Indian shooting a stag with a rifle, and there appears to be a bear below the scene. All four branches have burners concealed in the forms of tree stumps, below which are Bruffs ubiquitous snakes.

This extraordinary chandelier ornamented with western American scenes was designed for two spread sizes: one 3 feet 4 inches, and the other 2 feet 4 inches. The fact that the larger size cost $61.50 and the smaller $46.50 shows that materials counted for more than labor, because the work involved in making the molds and casting from them was much the same, whatever the size. Bruff designed at least one other chandelier using Indian motifs, a fairly small three-branched fixture 28 inches tall with a 22-inch spread. The overall treatment was conventionally classical, all the foliate motifs being based on acanthus, anthemion, and waterleaf precedents. However, atop each branch was a seated Indian facing the tree stump-concealed burner; one had a bow, one had a rifle, while another smoked a calumet. That rather small-scaled fixture, no. 2 in the series of Bruff drawings, was priced at $16.50.

From the National Archives, Record Group No. 121. (click on image for a PDF version)

Cornelius and Baker eagle bracket by J. G. Bruff, the Treasury Building, 1859. Plate 57

Bruff designed a series of ten or more brackets to accord with his elaborate chandeliers. He obviously took pride in his work, because at some point in 1859 he managed to alter his title, or have it altered, from "Ornamental Draughtsman" to "Designing Artist." The bracket shown here treats the eagle and olive branch naturalistically, whereas the rest of the foliage is designed in a conventionally classical manner. The shell seems a bit incongruous, but the gas key in the form of a door key makes a visual pun. Bruff evidently had a sense of humor as well as a zealously whimsical taste.

Two other brackets in the series approached surrealistic fantasies: a woman's arm clothed in an elaborate sleeve and holding a Roman lamp, and a decidedly disagreeable bracket in the form of a rattlesnake. (Perhaps the female arm was a reference to the "Lady with the Lamp" at the hospital in Scutari, the "Florence Nightingale" bracket!) Two brackets had Indian Motifs, one a mounted Indian hunting a buffalo with bow and arrow, the other a standing Indian wearing a bear claw necklace and armed with both bow and arrows and a large mace. He rested one foot on a buffalo skull, while behind him a rattlesnake was about to strike. Three other brackets were more conventional. One recalled the neoclassical, combining a Greek anthemion motif with wheat, acorns and oak leaves, a cornucopia of fruit, and a scallop shell containing a five-pointed star. That last motif appears also in the plaster cornices of the south wing corridors. Another bracket combined acanthus foliage with wheat and corn, and another combined oak, pine, wheat, corn, cotton, tobacco, and grapes, an all-American selection. The gas key of that bracket was in the form of the key on the Treasury Seal.

From the National Archives, Record Group No. 121. (click on image for a PDF version)

Cornelius and Baker, simple pendant by J. G. Bruff, the Treasury Building, 1859. Plate 58

In addition to the lavishly ornamented bronze fixtures just discussed, Bruff drew a series of scaled drawings on tracing paper. These simple fixtures apparently were to be fabricated in lacquered brass. The elaborate fixture shown in plate 55 was also drawn on tracing paper and was numbered 25, evidently the culmination of the series.

The fixture shown here had a spread of 2 feet and 3 inches and was about 4 feet high. It had only two burners and would therefore have been called a pendant rather than a chandelier. It represents a radical departure in style from the narrative or symbolic chandeliers and brackets mentioned earlier. That departure is not merely a matter of simplicity versus elaboration. Instead it lies in a basic approach to design and prefigures the aesthetic revolt that occurred during the 1860s against the ornate Neo-Rococo style, and the often farfetched allegories in miniature sculpture of the preceding decade. That earlier trend had been carried as far as it could go by about 1860, and a reaction was all but inevitable.

Note that all naturalistic forms have been rigidly excluded in the treatment of this pendant. Even the finials suggesting acorns are stylized, and the vase form at the base of the stem has been elongated in a mannerist way. It is not a literal copy of an ancient form, although it is certainly Neo-Grec in character, a style that became the prevailing mode by the later 1860s.

From the National Archives, Record Group No. 121. (click on image for a PDF version)

Cornelius and Baker, brass "T" by J. G. Bruff, the Treasury Building, 1859. Plate 59

This gas "T" of brass rope-twist tubing honors the precepts of the Reformist critics of the mid-19th century, such as Horatio Greenough, who held that ornament must arise logically out of construction. There are touches of ornament only at points of junction, the collar at the top, the intersection of the branches, and the keys and burners. The spread of this "T" was a trifle over 3 feet and its height about the same. Presumably the two burners of this $3.50 fixture gave as much light as those of the more elegant $18 pendant shown on plate 58. Clearly, the "T" was intended for a strictly utilitarian area of the Treasury Building.

From the National Archives, Record Group No. 121. (click on image for a PDF version)

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Last Updated: 30-Nov-2007