Have a Drink with Me! Lighting the Early Twentieth Century Bar
Photograph of Five Men at a Bar. Unknown Photographer [Stamp Illegible], Forest Street, Staten Island, New York; 1880-1915. Winterthur Library, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts & Printed Ephemera, Col. 182 77×373-31
It’s a late July afternoon, just after 3:00pm, and sunlight still streams in from the windows. Three men, poised and ready, stare into a camera lens from behind the bar, while another two, perhaps less prepared to have their picture taken, relax in front of the bar with drinks in hand, slightly raised toward the viewer, as if in the middle of a toast. This pub on Forest Street in Staten Island boasted a gothic revival bar covered in glass bottles, with photographs of past or current owners clogging the shelves, and ephemera pasted around the mirrors. If it were not for at least three American flags hanging along the back wall, a viewer might mistake the location as a traditional pub in Britain or Ireland.
Everything from the spittoons on the tile floor to the prints, rippled in their frames, hanging from the ceiling evokes tradition to the modern viewer. However, on looking closer, particularly at the lighting devices, one might be surprised to find a bar that was still adopting technological innovation within a traditionally furnished environment. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, electricity appeared on the market as new option for Americans to light their homes. But rather than purchase entirely new devices, many hoped to save some expense by refitting their gaslights.
We can tell that the gasolier hanging in the center of the photograph was at least once in its life outfitted for gas, evidenced from the pipes above it, and the gas gauges visible just below the lamp. On either side of the gasolier, however, are two more light bulbs, with matching shades to the gasolier that are rigged for electricity. A scalloped glass light hanging on a short chain from the ceiling, barely visible above the gasolier, represents a somewhat more stylized electric light. The idea that this bar represents all that is traditional is refuted with this combination of lights, intended to create a bright environment its customers may have begun to consider normal. As one electric company advertised: “Abundance of light and the convenience of electricity can no longer be classed as luxuries.” For the customers at the counter, the bar was an extension of the home, acting as a gathering place for members of the neighborhood, and the furnishings and the process by which they were updated would reflect this.
Lamp Statuette with gas fixtures, detail of above photograph. Unknown photographer [Stamp Illegible], Forest Street, Staten Island, New York; 1880-1915. Col. 182 77×373-31 Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts & Printed Ephemera.]
This new popularity of electric lighting, and its incorporation into traditionally furnished environments such as the pub in this photograph, is encapsulated in a gas-fitted statuette lamp sitting on the corner of the bar. These statuettes, often depicting classical figures such as nymphs, knights, or goddesses, rose to popularity through producers such as Philadelphia’s Cornelius and Baker and entered homes and public spaces across the country. With the introduction of the electric light, however, tradition did not cease and electric statuettes with similar forms were developed, incorporating the electric bulb stylistically into the figure.
Classical Electric Light Statuette [No. 6716], R. Williamson & Company, Chicago, c.1910. Archives.org, Catalogue no. 15: R. Williamson.
That the gas-fitted statuette on the bar would undoubtedly one day be replaced or, more likely, refitted with electric lighting was symbolic of the constellation of lighting available in the early twentieth-century home. The lack of visible gas tubes hooked to the lamp suggest that it may even already has been adapted, echoing the amount of refitting happening over full replacement with new technology. The lamp was part of a comforting medley for the pub’s visitors, who would recognize the group of diverse lighting technology more readily than a traditional gas-lit landscape or an overpowering, brightly lit electrified space. Once the cutting edge of technology, and perhaps one day to be refitted to be new again, the gas-lit statuette testifies to the subtle inclusion of technological innovations everywhere, even in your favorite pub.
By Michelle Fitzgerald, WPAMC Class of 2017
This post is part of a series written in the fall of 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.
Ade, George. The Old-Time Saloon: Not Wet – Not Dry, Just History. New York: Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, Inc., 1931.
Blühm, Andrea and Louise Lippincott. Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900 Art & Science, Technology & Society. Amsterdam and Pittsburgh: Thames & Hudson on behalf of the Van Gogh Museum and Carnegie Museum of Art, 2000.
Cornelius & Baker Company. Cornelius & Baker, Manufacturers of Lamps, Chandeliers & Gas Fixtures, Philadelphia. Philadelphia: J.B. Chandler, Reprinted in 1999 by the Rushlight Club, Inc.
Electric Storage Battery Company. How to Light Your Home by Electricity. Philadelphia: The Electric Storage Battery Company, c.1910.
Fennimore, Donald L. “Cornelius & Baker’s Answer to the Rage for Parlor Sculpture.” AFANews.com, 7 March 2013. http://www.afanews.com/articles/item/1677-cornelius-bakers-answer-to-the-rage-for-parlor-sculpture#.WBpH2WU9Tww
Girouard, Mark. Victorian Pubs. London: Cassell and Collier Macmillan Publishers on behalf of Studio Vista, 1975.
Gledhill, David. Gas Lighting. Aylesbury, England: Shire Publications, 1987.
Hammond, Robert. The Electric Light in Our Homes. London: F. Warne & Co., 1884.
Hunt, John. A. Harry. Catalog of Electric Light Fittings. Birmingham: J. A. H. Hunt, ca. 1915.
Maril, Nadja. American Lighting, 1840-1940. West Chester, PA: Schiffer Pub., 1989.
Myers, Denys Peter. Gaslighting in America. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior, Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, 1978.
O’Dea, William T. The Social History of Lighting. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958.
Pettingell-Andrews Company. Lighting-fixtures for the Home, the Church, and Public Buildings. Boston: The Barta Press, c.1910.
R. Williamson & Company. Catalogue no. 15: R. Williamson. Chicago: R. Williamson, 190-?.
Trevert, Edward. Practical Directions for Electric Gas-Lighting and Bell-Fitting for Amateurs. Lynn, MA: Bubier Publishing Company, 1901.
 Electric Storage Battery Company, How to Light Your Home by Electricity. Philadelphia: The Electric Storage Battery Company (c.1910), p.7.
 For literature discussing bars in the early twentieth century, as well as a nostalgic look at earlier bars, see: George Ade, The Old-Time Saloon. New York: Ray Long & Richard R. Smith (1931).
 Donald L. Fennimore, “Cornelius & Baker’s Answer to the Rage for Parlor Sculpture.” AFANews.com, 7 March 2013.