It seems odd to us today, dangerous even, to run electric wires in the same fixture as live gas is being used. Yet such was the case at the turn of the century. Why on earth did anyone do that? To us today, electricity is such a part of our day-to-day lives, but to answer the question we need to go back in time 100+ years.
The gas industry had been around in the USA for a long time, roughly since the 1830s. In many towns and cities, access to natural or “coal gas” was readily available. There was an established distribution, metering and billing system for gas lighting, and it was generally a reliable source. While gas was used for some heating applications, at the time most homes relied on coal for boilers, furnaces and kitchen ranges. This was the state of the technology up to around the late 1880s.
Enter the electric light starting in the very late 1800s. This was a new industry with many obstacles to overcome. Transmitting power over above-ground wires had its own expenses and hazards, and generating electric power *reliably* was many years in the making. One drawback was the transmission of electricity over long distances. In fact, many small towns and farms continued with their coal/wood burning kitchen ranges and coal-oil lamps well into the 1930s. In some areas, electricity was viewed as a commercial-only power source, to benefit local businesses for lighting and machinery, and for streetcar service. It wasn’t necessarily supplied 24 hours a day. Then too, there was a public fear of the unknown to overcome.
There was a learning curve involved with dealing with wires and such in the home. Author James Thurber wrote of an aunt’s concern that the electricity would “leak out” if there wasn’t a bulb residing in a fixture socket! The new industry gradually overcame many of the initial problems it faced supplying power and fixtures for residential use….but it took a long while.
Bringing Electricity into the 1900 Home
So what was the homeowner of 1900 to do when building that new home? Electricity, for all of its faults, had undeniable benefits. It was much cleaner. The birth of the electric appliance industry had begun, proving it was more adaptable than a mere gas flame. The new electric light could be directed up, down, or sideways. But if a good, reliable source of light was needed, in case those power lines went down in a storm, the gas fixture still had the advantage. At this early date, some gas fixtures used Welsbach gas mantel burners that burned brighter than the carbon filament bulbs of the day. The forward-thinking home builder would often select combination gas-electric lights for his home, and thus have all of the contingencies covered. The gas was there when it was needed, and the electric option would be in place whenever the municipality got around to wiring up his neighborhood.
The electricity often went out in those earlier years, but the industry persevered to become more reliable as time went on. As to the hazards of gas and electricity running within the same fixture, much was known early on and addressed by cautious manufacturers. It’s worth noting that the fixture electric wires did not run *inside of* the gas pipe, but rather along side it. The wires were well concealed by decorative metal sleeves and collars, which also covered the iron gas pipe. To the casual viewer it appeared that both sources were within the one pipe, but what they’re seeing is the outer covering. The wiring then—and now—-relies on proper insulation to keep the current contained.
Gas pipe connections were sealed to prevent leakage, and electrical connections were made as securely as they knew how at the time to keep the two sources isolated. These precautions were taken to ensure that both gas and electricity could be available within one fixture without incident. It’s worth noting that we still have gas-electric combinations today, although not light fixtures as such. We have modern gas stoves that use electricity within the same unit to power up electric ignitions, clocks, lights and so on. Modern gas clothes dryers use electricity for timers and such. So long as the two are well-isolated from each other, there is no inherent danger in normal daily usage.
So the years rolled by, and electricity became well established in many a neighborhood. One would think that the gas/electric lights would be tossed out as soon as possible, but not necessarily so. Some grander gas-only fixtures were merely wired up for electricity and replaced back in their original position. Because they had adequate electrical components, many homes with gas/electric fixtures simply ignored the gas portion. In recent years, we have had many recent DC homeowners buy an older home and marvel at finding such lights, still attached and still with live gas in them, noting that telltale hissing sound as the gas valve was turned on.
From about 1900 to 1920, the gas lighting industry made many last-ditch efforts to stay competitive with the electric light. Fixtures with gas mantels, like those found in a Coleman lantern, were introduced to provide lighting in a downward direction. If such a fixture also had electric sockets, often both lighting sources used matching shades, so the difference was harder to detect. Some fixtures had gas burner tops disguised to look like electric light sockets, so as to appear more “modern” than the earlier Victorian gas burners.
As electricity became more reliable, as more convenient home appliances were introduced and as bulb technology introduced brighter bulbs, the gas industry realized it had to shift its focus. The gas supplied to homes was used more for heating —for stoves, boilers, furnaces and the like. The gas industry—no longer the gas lighting industry—-changed the sourcing of the gas being supplied to meet this new demand. The huge, smelly above-ground gas municipal tanks vanished one by one. The final footnote to this story was written locally when a note in the gas bill informed users that it was no longer necessary to write their checks payable to the Washington Gas Light Company, but simply to Washington Gas.