j.p. morgan puts electric lights in his home -- 12/17/18

Today's selection -- from Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes. The powerful New York banker J.P. Morgan was one of the first to invest in Thomas Edison's fledgling electric light company. He was also the first to successfully install electric lights in his home, but not without incident:

"The 1880 census showed fifty mil­lion Americans. Morgan, unlike many of his old money peers, relished this new temper of the times, admired men like Edison who were bold, ambitious, hardworking, confident.

"Late that spring, Morgan, who had just returned from a long European tour, had briefly put aside his considerable business concerns and announced to [Thomas] Edison an audacious decision. He was going to personally showcase the advantages of Edison's pioneering incan­descent light in his elegant Madison Avenue brownstone, just then in the throes of top-to-bottom renovation. Morgan's Italianate mansion would become, thereby, the first private residence in New York to be illuminated solely by electricity. This was, of course, no simple mat­ter. Nonetheless, the imperious Morgan wanted the electricity installed and working by the time he, his wife, Fanny, and their three teenage children moved in that fall from their country estate, Cragston, up the Hudson River. Edison was delighted to oblige, for it would be a great coup to have Morgan's personal imprimatur on what many dismissed as a dangerous and exotic novelty. Whatever people thought of J. P. Morgan, no one thought him a fool. Money men had learned that he was decisive, intelligent, and swift of action, and above all, he kept his word, no small matter when spectral fig­ures liked Jay Gould preyed upon the stock market. ...

"On Thursday, June 8, 1882, Edison Electric Company president Major Sherbourne Eaton wrote Edison, 'Morgan's house was lighted up last night. I was not there but I am told that the light was satisfac­tory and that Morgan was delighted. The armature of the 250 light [bulb] machine sparked badly. It will have to be changed at once. Vail took charge of that. [Decorator Christian] Herter was present and declared himself entirely satisfied. Morgan is pleased with everything but Herter's Fixtures.' By fall, as the New York social season opened, the Wall Street financier and his family were installed in their new home with its 385 electric lights, casting a soft, even, incandescent glow every­where, from the servants' halls and butler's pantry to the bedrooms and the 'Japanese manner' reception room and sitting room. The Romanesque dining room with its high oak paneling was particularly striking, for there electric lights cast a lovely jeweled radiance through the twelve-foot-square stained-glass skylight.

"The deluxe Artistic Houses rhapsodized about every rich and costly detail of Morgan's newly renovated brownstone residence, gushing especially about the vast and splendiferous terra-cotta drawing room, where 'a breath from the Graeco-Roman epoch of Italia seems to have left its faint impress on the walls, or rather its faint fragrance in the atmosphere ... amid the aroma of perfect taste.' This must have pleased Morgan, who disdained the obvious vulgarity of many of the new Gilded Age millionaires. His house was meant to convey an aura of money and power, subtly bur­nished by his European education, culture, and worldly intelli­gence. What was genuinely new and unique was Edison's electric light. 'Each room is supplied with it, and, in order to illuminate a room, you have simply to turn a knob as you enter. By turning a knob near the head of his bed, Mr. Morgan is able to light instanta­neously the hall and every room on the first floor, basement, and cellar -- a valuable precaution in case of the arrival of burglars. ' ...

"[However,] when the sun dipped below the horizon, Mr. Mor­gan's steam engine and electrical generators roared to life, shattering the descending blessed calm. These powerful machines clanked and throbbed so intensely, Mrs. James Brown next door complained that her whole house was vibrating. And that was not all. The infernal steam engine contraption, operating as it did on coal, also belched noxious fumes and smoke. Mrs. Brown reported that this was per­meating her pantry, leaving her silver tarnished. Mr. Morgan reas­sured his aggrieved neighbor's husband that an 'expert' from Edison's company 'will call and see from personal observation and consultation what the features are which cause you annoyance .... I need scarcely add that I shall spare neither exertion nor expense' to tame the overwrought machines.

The Library in the Home of JP Morgan

"Just after Christmas, when three weeks had passed and nary an Edison man had materialized to right the situation, Morgan wrote indignantly to Sherbourne Eaton: 'I must frankly say that I consider the whole thing an outrage to me, as well as the neighbors­ -- am unwilling to stand it any longer. Please let the matter have immediate attention.' Finally an Edison crew appeared and solved the problem by underpinning the machines with India rubber pads, lining the stable with felt, and further cushioning the whole instal­lation with sandbags. Then yet another ditch was dug across the yard, this to funnel the coal smoke from the steam engine into the mansion's chimney. Now, a new kind of noise impinged. Reported son-in-law Satterlee, 'In the winter when the snow melted above the brick conduit, all the stray cats in the neighborhood gathered on this warm strip in great numbers, and their yowling gave grounds for more complaints.' And there was, of course, the intermittent annoyance of wires short-circuiting and the generator occasionally malfunctioning.

"All this was understandably trying to the Morgan family. Yet Morgan was surprisingly patient. As an investment banker who had backed many railroads, which were continually absorbing new tech­nologies, he seemed quite accepting that problems large and small were inevitable. Had it not taken three arduous tries before the Atlantic cable was properly laid and began to work reliably? Finally, however, in the fall of 1883, J. Pierpont requested Edward H. Johnson, one of Edison's top executives, to please come have a look at the man­sion's less-than-satisfactory year-old electrical arrangements. Johnson was not happy about going to Morgan's, but in a fledgling industry desperate for capital and credibility, he had little choice. Morgan's firm was a significant power in Wall Street. In a brief reminiscence written for Satterlee's book, Johnson said that 'after thoroughly can­vassing the lighting of the house' he found the system already out­moded. Electric light technology was advancing that quickly. 'Mr. Morgan inquired of me what I thought of it. I asked if he wished an honest and candid reply. He said he did. I said, "If it was my own I would throw the whole D-- thing into the street." [Replied Mor­gan] "That is precisely what Mrs. Morgan says."' 'The next day, when Morgan was at his office reviewing balance sheets and surveying all that happened through his cigar haze, he summoned Johnson and asked him to go up to the mansion personally and redo the electric. A reluctant Johnson agreed.

"As part of the new, upgraded electrical lighting of the Morgan res­idence, Johnson decided to improvise 'an arrangement for giving light on Mr. Morgan's library table by means of concealed wires in the floor and contact spuds fixed in the legs of the table to penetrate the heavy and costly rug which covered the floor,' The next morning quite early, Johnson received another summons to the Morgan manse. As he headed swiftly toward Madison Avenue and 36th, he had a queasy feeling something had gone awry. Upon entering Mor­gan's magnificent mosaic vestibule and removing his derby, he took one whiff of the air and his worst fears were confirmed. 'The house was pervaded by a strong smell of wet, burned wood and burned car­pet' The servant who had answered the door escorted Johnson to the library. 'The library floor was torn up in several places; and in the centre of the room was the partly burned desk and burned rug and other charred objects piled in a heap .... One of the spuds (beneath the library table) had become bent or broken and an imperfect con­tact was made and a fire ensued completely wrecking the beautiful room. The family were at the opera at the time.' Johnson surveyed the soggy, blackened detritus, his spirits sinking rapidly. For while J. P. Morgan did not yet fully dominate American finance as he eventually would, he was still a famously impatient and ill-tempered man and growing ever more influential among the all-important New York money men. Years later, that moment was still vivid to Johnson. 'It was a dismal scene .... Suddenly I heard footsteps and Mr. Mor­gan appeared in the doorway with a newspaper in his hand and looked at me over the tops of his glasses.

' "Well?" he said.

'I had formulated an explanation, and was prepared to make an elaborate excuse. Just as I opened my mouth to speak, Mrs. Morgan appeared behind Mr. Morgan, and as I caught her eye she put her fin­ger on her lips and then vanished down the hall. I said nothing but looked at the heap of debris.

'After a minute's silence Mr. Morgan said, "Well, what are you going to do about it?"

'I answered, "Mr. Morgan, the trouble is not inherent in the thing itself. It is my own fault, and I will put it in good working order so it will be perfectly safe."

'He said, "How long will it take to fix it?" 'I answered, "I will do it right away."

' "Alright," he replied, "see that you do." '

"Morgan's son-in-law wrote that the banker was subsequently so delighted with his electricity that he 'gave a reception, and about four hundred guests came to the house and marveled at the convenience and simplicity of the system.'

"So pleased was Morgan with his electric alternative to what Edi­son gleefully damned as 'the vile poison' gaslight that he had John­son install electric lights in the rectory of his church, St. George's, as well as in the church gym, to make it easier to use in the winter. He also had a family friend's school for young children wired."

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Jill Jonnes


Empires of Light


Random House Trade Paperbacks


Copyright 2003 by Jill Jonnes


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