the light before electricity -- 12/18/19

Today's selection -- from American Lucifers by Jeremy Zallen. Long before Thomas Edison and the electric lightbulb, American cities were lit by gas derived from coal, and gaslight companies proliferated as cities clamored for this new source of illumination:

"To manufacture gas from coal, stokers shoveled it into clay ovens called retorts; workers tending fur­naces superheated the retorts until the coal decomposed into hydrogen gas, other gasses, and the nearly pure carbon remains known as coke; and then condensers and scrubbers purified and collected that hydrogen gas in giant tanks to pipe throughout a city. Gas was the unquestioned light of an indus­trially enlightened future. First developed in Britain in the early nineteenth century, by the 1840s European and American cities were enthusiastically adopting the technology. All over the United States, from New York, Boston, and Philadelphia to New Orleans, Baltimore, Richmond, and even whale­-crazed New Bedford, gasworks were sprouting up, expanding, and thriving in cities still overwhelmingly illuminated with camphene, oil, and candles.

Drawing the retorts at the Great Gas Establishment Brick Lane, from The Monthly Magazine (1821)

"One of the most insistent proponents of gas was the New York publica­tion Scientific American. For writers in Scientific American, gas was, or should have been, an agent of democracy, equality, and freedom. Complaining of what they perceived to be unfairly high gas rates in 1852, they argued that if 'gas was $2 per 1000 feet,' as it was in Philadelphia, instead of the $3 it was in New York, 'all our working people would use it, and it would prove a bless­ing to them. There would be no accidents from camphene, and there would be less fires. Community, in toto, would be the gainers.' Even $2 was still be­yond the means of the great majority of Philadelphians, at least given the un­even distribution of gas infrastructure, but the point was a fair one. And so Scientific American argued it was the civic 'duty of all to exert an influence in bringing about a reform in the gas line.' Nor was this an unreasonable goal, the article noted, for every 'mechanic in Manchester and Glasgow has his domicil lighted with cheap, convenient, and clean gas light. Why cannot our people, as a whole, have the same advantages?'

"The gasworks multiplying in cities across the world, as readily in a slave city like New Orleans as in Philadelphia or New York, became monuments to the modern age. They were material representations of what nineteenth­-century middle-class men and women meant when they talked about a lib­eral, well-regulated city serving some kind of 'public good.' City govern­ments invested millions chartering corporations to construct and operate gas systems to light streets, bourgeois homes, workshops, theaters, and de­partment stores. This new urban infrastructure made it possible for some people in some sections of these cities to begin to disregard the cycles of moon, clouds, night and day, and solstice and equinox. But this gaslight was not everywhere and for everyone. Through gaslight, nineteenth-century urban elites began to locate modernity in particular places. The liberal, mod­ern city made itself with gaslight; the laboring, nonmodern city burned cam­phene and candles -- or so many people told themselves. But as middle-class Americans tied their dreams ever more tightly to the built environments of gaslight, they also came to depend on the unstable worlds of work and workers that made that light possible, from the Irish immigrants and en­slaved mechanics operating the gasworks to the coal pits where enslaved men, free miners, and mine owners battled over labor, wages, safety, and life in deadly underground caverns."



Jeremy Zallen


American Lucifers


The University of North Carolina Press


Copyright 2019 Jeremy Zallen


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment