Gaslighting in America
A Guide for Historic Preservation
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Chandeliers installed in the East Room of the White House, 1873. Plate 70

In 1873, President Grant had the up-to-date fixtures seen in this photograph replace the three East Room glass chandeliers that had been bought for the White House by President Jackson in 1834 and fitted for gas in 1848 (see plate 13). This J. F. Jarvis stereograph was taken after the room was redecorated for President Arthur in 1882-1883 by Associated Artists. These immense chandeliers, hung with dozens of notched spear prisms and lighted by a multitude of shaded burners and internal reflectors as well, were as splendid as any in America of their day. Such chandeliers represented the ultimate in grandeur and luxury to most men and women of the gilded age. A contemporary publication, describing a Fall River (Massachusetts) Line steamboat, spoke of "costly chandeliers in the sunbeams darting forth the bright rays of the prism, or by gaslight sparkling with all the brilliancy of a tiara of diamonds." [117]

From the author's collection. (click on image for a PDF version)

Detail of a glass chandelier showing ball and socket joint at ceiling, ca. 1865. Plate 7l

Although glass, or "crystal" chandeliers were by no means unknown, particularly in the Boston area before the Civil War, the real vogue for them came in the last third of the 19th century. During the 1850s and 1860s frosted and cut glass bowls and stem balusters and frosted bobeches were often used in combination with clear notched spear prisms. Frosting the glass was a means of minimizing the effect of the silvered pipes to which the clear glass branches were attached. The glass branches were fragile and could not withstand very much torque. It was therefore necessary to hang glass chandeliers so that they were not rigid. "Larger and heavier fixtures are hung with universal ball-and-socket joints." [118]

The chandelier of which a detail is shown here formerly hung in the J. H. Bancroft House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and probably dated from around 1865. It dates from before 1873 and is almost certainly of Massachusetts origin. It is 33 inches wide and just short of 70 inches tall. The prisms, or "icicles" are 5-1/2 inches long. Note particularly the ball-and-socket joint where the pipe meets the ceiling. The elaborate center flower was not molded plaster but simply illusionistically painted in grisaille on a perfectly flat surface.

A similar but slightly larger chandelier fitted with gas candles is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art and is attributed to Gillinder and Sons of Philadelphia. [119] It is quite unlikely that the Cambridge chandelier came from Philadelphia; however, it is very likely that it was made by an East Cambridge firm. The Cambridge fixture and the supposedly Philadelphia fixture are so similar, it seems probable that the Metropolitan Museum's example should be attributed to a Massachusetts firm.

From the author's collection. (click on image for a PDF version)

Mt. Washington Glassworks Display in the Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876. Plate 72

The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia exhibited a wide variety of products. Lighting fixtures were certainly not least among the categories shown. Among the many groups of manufactures exhibiting American prowess were the wares of the Mount Washington Glass Works of New Bedford, Massachusetts, seen here. The dazzling display of crystal chandeliers and glasswares included epergnes and other tablewares, vases, and at least three painted glass chandeliers, one at the extreme left and two, one behind another, left of center. Note also the various sizes of shades stacked within the counter at bottom center of the photograph. This group of fixtures includes most of the styles current in glass chandeliers during the 1870s. [120]

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. (click on image for a PDF version)

Brass and ormolu chandelier by Mitchell, Vance and Company, 1870. Plate 73

This handsome brass and ormolu 12-light chandelier hung in the sitting room of the now-demolished Jedediah Wilcox House completed in 1870 in Meridan, Connecticut. The chandelier (5 feet 8 inches tall) was never electrified. The lower six burners have slotted shafts with slotted sliding brass sleeves to permit varying amounts of air to be mixed with the gas, to adjust the pressure. The classical profile heads in high relief just above the gas keys, the vase and urn motifs of the stem, and the stylized palmettes are all hallmarks of the Neo-Grec style of the late 1860s and the 1870s. The etched and cut glass shades are original. [121]

The Wilcox House chandeliers were made by the New York firm of Mitchell, Vance and Company. Originally, the firm was Mitchell, Bailey and Company, incorporated in 1854 in Connecticut by John S. Mitchell, John Bailey, Anson H. Colt, and Samuel B. H. Vance. In 1860 the new copartnership of Mitchell, Vance and Company was organized by Mitchell, Vance, and Aaron and Charles Benedict. In 1873, the Connecticut copartnership was dissolved, and Mitchell, Vance and Company was reincorporated in New York. When John S. Mitchell died on February 1, 1875, the firm was managed under the same name by Charles Benedict, President. As early as 1856 the firm had a fashionable Broadway address. In 1877, they built offices at 836-838 Broadway, where they were still listed in 1902. [122]

A Mitchell and Vance advertisement in 1881 read: "Mitchell, Vance and Company Manufacturers of Gas Fixtures, Fine Clocks, and Bronzes. Highest Award and Medals at the Centennial Exhibition. Crystal, gilt, bronze, and decorated [i.e., polychromed] gas fixtures in the greatest variety at low prices. Special designs for churches, halls, hotels, dwellings, etc." [123]

Note that the firm received the highest award at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia. Cornelius's output may have been the largest in volume, but by 1876 Mitchell, Vance and Company led in prestige. The judges' report for the 40th Exhibition of the American Institute said: "The Glass Chandeliers are equal, if not superior to the celebrated Osler manufacture [English], which have been, the best in the world. The Glass is of unusual whiteness. They Rank A1." [124]

The firm supplied the fixtures for such prestigious buildings as: St. Patrick's Cathedral, St. Thomas's Church, Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas, and Temple Emanuel, all on New York's Fifth Avenue, and H. H. Richardson's Brattle Square Church in Boston, Boston City Hall, and the new Illinois State Capitol. There are 69 structures listed in Mitchell, Vance and Company's Centennial Catalogue including such hotels as the Windsor and the Grand Central in New York, the Palmer House in Chicago, Galt House in Louisville, and the Grand Union and United States Hotels in Saratoga Springs. Theaters included the Booth Theatre and the Grand Opera House in New York City. College buildings listed were Harvard's new Memorial Hall and "Smith's Female College" in Northampton, Massachusetts. Commercial Structures included two of the most important buildings of the time, the Western Union Telegraph Building and the Tribune Building, New York proto-skyscrapers. [125]

The text of the Centennial Catalogue indicates contemporary practice. "For the Reception Room, Chandeliers in Gold, relieved with a little color—as jet, crimson, or blue are deemed desirable." A matching 12-light chandelier was suggested for the drawing room, and chandeliers with center slides for "other rooms," presumably the dining room and library. Among these was a seven-light (six-branched) "slide Library Chandelier in the Neo-Grec style." The center slide had an Argand burner and could be lowered "very near the reading table." That fixture was ornamented with medallions representing music, poetry, and history, but the substitution of medallions representing game, birds, and fish could render it suitable for the dining room. It was available in bronze, gilt, or verde antique finish. The "Standards" shown were pillar lights with several burners and included a crystal and an ecclesiastical design. One newel standard was supported by a bronze American Indian. The grandest crystal fixture illustrated was a 30-light chandelier. The most detailed description was reserved for the lavish Neo-Grec eight-light chandelier made for the main entrance of the Western Union Telegraph Building. This fixture had a laurel-garland Greek vase, four fluted colonnettes with foliated capitals, and burners in the form of classical lamps. It also had an extraordinary assortment of fauna — female nudes in low relief, lion heads, griffins, and animals that appeared to be the progeny of sphinxes mated with unicorns. It was designed by Charles C. Perring, whose skill probably contributed much to the outstanding success of the firm. [126]

Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Wing Restricted Building Fund, 1968. (click on image for a PDF version)

Cornelius and Sons display in the Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876. Plate 74

The Cornelius and Sons' kiosk in the main building at the Centennial Exhibition shows that at least one large glass chandelier was in their repertoire, although their 22-page catalogue of about the same date shows none. Certainly crystal fixtures were not their usual product. Most of their metal fixtures of the 1870s were decidedly angular in design and were derived more from a misinterpretation of Eastlake principles than from a sophisticated understanding of the Neo-Grec style. Many of Cornelius and Sons' designs in their undated catalogue, probably issued in 1876, appear awkward and naive in comparison with those of Mitchell, Vance and Company, although that is by no means invariably the case. Note that the table in the foreground bears several lamps whose burners are supported by bronze figures. Two of those in the catalogue represent seasons and are labeled "Ete" and "Hiver," which suggests the prestige of "French bronze," even when made in America.

The history of the Cornelius firm down to 1870 has already been traced. [127] After the split with the Bakers in 1869, Cornelius and Sons in 1870 was composed of Robert Cornelius and his sons Robert Comeley, John C., and Charles Blakiston, Samuel Loder and Albert G. Hetherington. Another name change occurred in 1886, when Cornelius and Hetherington, John C. Cornelius and Albert G. Hetherington, were the partners. An 1887 advertisement read as follows: "Cornelius and Hetherington — Artistic gas and electric fixtures, wrought iron and brass grills, memorial brass, real bronze, railings and castings. 1332 Chestnut Street." [128] From 1888 until the firm dissolved in 1900 it operated as Cornelius and Rowland with John C. Cornelius and George L. Rowland as partners.

The Baker group formed Baker, Arnold and Company by 1871 or the year before. In 1875 the partners were listed as William C. Baker, Crawford Arnold, and Robert C. Baker at the old Cornelius and Baker address, 710 Chestnut Street. Crawford Arnold first appeared in 1859 at the same address and apparently was a member of the firm of Cornelius and Baker but not a partner. Baker, Arnold and Company was last listed in 1878. [129]

Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia. (click on image for a PDF version)

Plate from Cornelius and Sons catalogue, probably 1876. Plate 75

The undated Cornelius and Sons catalogue previously mentioned is in The Historical Society of Pennsylvania collection in Philadelphia and is the only copy known to exist. It is composed of 22 lithographed plates showing a variety of fixtures, most of which are depicted in a brown color representing bronze, although a few are shown as gilded. The angularity of the three fixtures on this plate is typical of many that were made around the centennial year of 1876. The chandelier at the left has elements of Neo-Grec style, but the chandelier at the right, an eclectic blend, is more Eastlake than otherwise in design. These bronze finished chandeliers, nos. 6492 and 6410, had gilded counterparts, nos. 6493 and 6411. Twelve-light chandeliers were never very common. They were used only in large and grand houses and in public buildings.

Courtesy of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. (click on image for a PDF version)

Cornelius and Sons chandelier illustrated in the previous plate. Plate 76

This is one of three gilded chandeliers catalogued. as no. 6411, the gilt version of no. 6410 at the right of the preceding Cornelius and Sons plate. The three measure 53 inches high and have a spread of 31-1/2 inches. Two hang in the drawing room and one in the en suite dining room of an Alexandria, Virginia, residence built between 1850 and 1855. Alexandria already had city gas in 1851, so these fixtures of the mid-1870s must be presumed to have replaced earlier chandeliers. As damage to earlier chandeliers was unlikely, they were probably removed by a previous owner. Frequently fine fixtures were considered to be furnishings rather than fittings and were retained by the seller when a house changed hands.

Courtesy of Mr. & Mrs. Bernard Fensterwald, Alexandria, Virginia, photograph by Jack E. Boucher. (click on image for a PDF version)

Detail of Cornelius and Sons chandelier in the previous plate. Plate 77

This detail of the chandelier in the Eastlake manner by Cornelius and Sons shown on the preceding plate clearly demonstrates that, although the designs may have fallen short of the firm's previous standards, the quality of workmanship was fully maintained. The execution of complicated castings was every bit as well carried out by Cornelius and Sons as by any of their rivals.

Courtesy of Mr. & Mrs. Bernard Fensterwald, Alexandria, Virginia, photograph by Jack E. Boucher. (click on image for a PDF version)

Chandeliers from Cornelius and Sons catalogue, probably 1876. Plate 78

The notation "plate 318" in the upper right corner of this plate suggests that there was a group of illustrations in print much larger than the 22 lithographed plates that comprise the extant Cornelius and Sons catalogue (see plate 75 of this report). The 821 Cherry Street address refers to the company's factory, not to the retail outlet, which was at 1332 Chestnut Street from 1870 until the late 1890s. The stem of the chandelier in the middle and the griffins perched on the branches of the chandelier at the left show Neo-Grec influence, but the fixture at the right almost defies stylistic analysis. Note that the branches of the chandelier at the left are identical with those of the 12-light chandelier just discussed (except for the griffins, see plate 77). These three fixtures could be had with from two or three to six lights. They range from 21 to 23 inches in spread and from 34 to 48 inches in height. Each shade was secured by a single set-screw. Two short claws (not visible in this lithograph) on the supporting ring engaged the lower lip of the shade and held it firmly.

Courtesy of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. (click on image for a PDF version)

Cornelius and Sons bracket with griffin, ca. 1876. Plate 79

The cast griffin ornamenting this Neo-Grec gilded bracket is identical to those shown on the chandelier at the left of the preceding plate. The bracket can therefore be attributed with certainty to Cornelius and Sons. The inappropriately plain spun brass wall plate is a modern replacement for an undoubtedly more ornate lost original. Wall plates were invariably used with brackets to mask the break in the plaster where the gas pipe emerged from the wall. They were often shallow in profile because there was no need, as in modern installations, to accommodate wires and wire nuts. The shadeholder of this bracket is a modern restoration. But the design is reasonably suitable for shades of post-1880 vintage, although three set-screws instead of one, as in original shade holders, are used. The shade dates from the 1880s and is etched with Neo-Grec patterns. Probably the original shade was still of the small-necked variety.

From the author's collection, photograph by Jack E. Boucher. (click on image for a PDF version)

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Last Updated: 30-Nov-2007