Casting Light on Gaslight Plumbing




Poster Stamp, c. 1910. Polychrome lithograph on paper.  Winterthur Library, the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera.

Take a look at the charming scene printed on the poster stamp above. Between the mandolin player, tambour-embroidering woman, and pipe smoker, this diminutive advertisement for gas lighting evokes a quaint Colonial-era-inspired interior setting. Thanks to their hanging gasolier, or gas chandelier, the loungers can bask in the heat from the fire while enjoying an overhead source of light. While this scene highlights the practicality and user-friendliness of domestic gas lights, it neglects to recognize the invisible support systems fueling this popular form of lighting!

Such idealized advertisements for gas-fueled chandeliers, sconces, or lamps rarely acknowledge the carefully-concealed network of pipes and hoses conveying steady streams of gas above and below domestic spaces to the proper burners. Instead, we must look to photographs to reveal the hidden mechanical systems providing so many 19th century homes with consistent and leak-free flows of gas. Examining this next image, a photograph of a late-19th or early 20th century parlor, highlights the tricky reality of outfitting interior spaces with gas plumbing fixtures.


Photograph of Paneled Interior, c. 1900. Silver-gel photograph on paper. Winterthur Library, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera collection 182.

As much of the photograph focuses on wall-hangings and the Arts-and-Crafts furniture that fills the wood-paneled interior, it takes several moments before one’s eyes rise to the top of the image. This upper space is not bare, as one might first assume. Instead, this portion of the photo reveals gas pipes quietly entering the room, extending across the exposed rafters to fuel a plain gasolier and a sconce on the far side of the room, and then gracefully exiting to adjoining spaces. While this interior was likely fitted for gas lighting years before the photograph was taken, it is effective in highlighting just how these oft-concealed pipe networks interacted with the spaces that they filled with light.


Detail of the above photograph, showing gas plumbing.

Considering these pipes also allows us to understand the forms of urbanization and industrial growth spurred by coal and oil-gas lighting technology. Newspapers suggest the extent to which gas fuels helped to develop plumbing and fixture installation industries. Companies such as E. Whelan in Philadelphia expressed eagerness in providing gas fittings and expert installation in “Dwellings, Stores, or Public buildings” while assuring that pipes would “be entirely concealed, and warranted not to leak” (The North American and Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, PA, Dec. 10, 1842). These systems were not always connected to city-wide utility networks—one invention allowed users to create coal gas in their cellars! —but they did tend to overlap with concurrent developments in urban water systems.

Some professionals even authored advice books for those considering installing gas plumbing in their homes. One notes that the “most direct course to each burner, so far as it is practicable, is in all respects the best” (J.O.N. Rutter, Advantages of Gas in Private Houses, 10). Such practical advice was followed by those installing the pipes in the wood-paneled room in the photograph—pipes are drawn straight across and dropped exactly where needed, minimizing potential leakage through improperly-fit, wrought-iron joints. These guidebooks also suggested hiring “the most intelligent and experienced workmen” to ensure the proper and safe installation of pipes as they “constitute[d] the most durable portions of the fixtures of a house,” emphasizing the increased professionalization of America’s plumbing industry (Rutter 11).

While poster stamps or other visual advertisements might not highlight the support systems needed for reliable interior gas lighting, plumbers were well-aware that “the burners; the chandeliers, pendants, brackets &c., are more a matter of taste … the supply pipes are of the upmost importance” (Alfred Wood, A Guide to Gas-Lighting, 9). Photographs can suggest how these metal fittings provided the mechanical systems for flowing coal or oil-gas through the home, while newspaper and guidebooks suggest how these systems were vital for the development of a modern plumbing industry during the mid-19th century!


By Trevor Brandt, WPAMC Class of 2017


This post is part of a series written in fall 2016 for a Historic Interiors class at Winterthur.  Students explored photographs housed in the miscellaneous photograph collection (Collection 182) in the Winterthur Library’s Joseph Downs Collection. These scenes each reveal a treasure trove of objects that invite further examination, speculation, and connections to other Winterthur collections.


Further Reading:

Gledhill, David. Gas Lighting. Ayelsbury, UK: Shire Press, 1987.

Myers, Denys Peter. Gaslighting in America: A Guide for Historic Preservation. Washington D.C.: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, 1978.

Rutter, J.O.N. Advantages of Gas in Private Houses. Cambridge: Thurston and Torry, 1855.

Wood, Alfred. A Guide to Gas-Lighting: being a manual for gas consumers on some of the most important points connected with the consumption of coal gas as an artificial light. Hastings, England: Geo. P. Bacon, Chronicle Office, 1860.

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