The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries produced a rash of technologies for lighting homes, businesses and factories.
Gas light was the first. It was known in England as early as 1792 and was the original source of light in most homes built between 1840 and 1900. Whale oil followed in the early part of the 19th century. Kerosene came into use in the 1860s and finally, electricity, in the 1880s.
Gas lighting stayed in use even after the introduction or electric lighting because of its relative dependability. As late as the 1920s a few cities require gas burners for emergency lights in public places. The electrical generators often only worked at night and Thomas Edison's invention was subject to frequent blackouts.
To deal with this uncertainly houses used a combination of lighting soources. Manufacturers' catalogues of the period and hardware stores carried chandelier for both gas and kerosene. The Christian Heurich Mansion on New Hampshire Avenue NW, now used by the the Columbia Historical Society, has a gas and electric channdelier.
The gas was not the natural gas that we use to heat and cool our houses and cook our food. It was coal gas and it came from a gaslight company. The first such a company, Baltimore Gas-Light, opened in 1817.
The gas was a byproduct of the burning process that turned coal into Coke. The burning released the gas that was then piped through lime to purify it. After that it went out to homes. The lime became soaked with the impurities produced a terrible smell - gashouse neighborhoods stank.
If you lived in the country or a small town without a gas light company, you could buy your own gas machine. They were not the safest inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Some made gas by distilling benzene.
One, the Springfield gas machine, got its gas from evaporting gasoline. Because of the danger of explosions, the machine was usually located in a pit some distance from the house.
Gas lighting had other disadvantages. The lights gave off very little light. A special burner, the Walsbach incandescent gas mantle, was a major improvement in the technology but by then electricity was becoming popular and accessible.
You could only have light where you had a fixture. There were wall brackets, chandeliers, and pillars (upright fixtures that were attached to newel posts) that eventually became table lamps. These table lamps had to be connected to the gas line either through a chandelier wallbracket with a rubber hose. Some chandeliers were even made with special gas cocks for table lamps so that both could burn at the same time. A rubber hose trailing across the floor was hardly the most pracical or aesthetically pleasing alternative. That kind of gas lamp made kerosene an attractive choice.
If your old house is in the city and was built between 1840 and 1900, it probably had gas lighting. Look under existing fixtures for the pipes. Attics, cellars, and pantries are placed to check forcapped gas butts.
In the District and in Northern Virginia, interior gas lighting is prohibited by local plumbing codes. In suburban Maryland, it is possible if the gas pipes and fixtures are the kind approved by the American Gas Association. They must also be inspected by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. (New ornamental exterior gas lighting has been prohibited by federal law since last fall.)
Think carefully about putting the gas light system back in operation. You will need to be sure that there are no cracks or leaks in the pipes. Natural gas burns with a hotter flame than coal gas, so you will need to be sure that it won't damage the fixtures.
Match the fixtures with the style and period of the house. Until recently it was easy to get 18th century replicas but there were few sources for Victoriana. Now, Class Illumination in San Francisco, the Angelo Brothers in Phildelphia, and Nowell's in Sausalito, Calif., sell reproductions. Restored originals are available from the London Ventures Co. in Rockport, Mass.
A book on the subject, Gaslighting in America: A Guide for Historic Preservation, written by Denys Peter Myers, and published by the Department of the Interior, is available here. It costs $5.25 and can be ordered from th Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington 20402. The stock number is 024-016-00094-3.