Technology and Design: Early Gas and Electric Lamps in Canada
Established in 1968, the light collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) brings together gas, arc, incandescent and fluorescent lamps, light standards, and trade literature that reflect the aesthetic trends of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Art Deco, modernism, and among them the Victorian, “City Beautiful” movement, initiated at the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893 in Chicago.
The design of lamps was influenced as much by art, architectural styles, and fashion as by economics and technical innovations. In fact, the earliest illustrations of gas luminaries come from Fredrick Accum’s Practical Treatise on Gas-Light published in 1815 by Rudolph Ackermann, a well-known London art dealer. Ackermann’s art library was most likely the first interior illuminated by gas lamps, thereafter sealing the connection between light fixtures and art.2
The gas lighting system was first applied to street illumination in London, England, in 1809. The technology was transferred to the North American market within the next decade. In Canada, the first gas system was installed in Montreal in 1837, followed by Toronto in 1841. Soon, gas lamps were used in Halifax (1843), Quebec City (1849), Kingston (1850), and Hamilton (1851). The gas street lights were placed around cities on high cedar posts and the burners were covered by white glass globes which required constant cleaning. The early interior gas lamps were expensive. Railway stations, hotels, ballrooms and large halls, and wealthy industrialists were among the first customers of gas lighting companies. The price of the services was based on the number of burners required by the customer. Therefore, many of the early fixtures featured only one or two gas burners. Six types of burner designs were the most common: rat-tail, cockspur, cockscomb, batwing, fishtail, and the Argand burner. The design of the first five burners— and the shape of the flames that they produced— resembled the natural animal forms indicated by the model names, while the Argand burner was round and often generously decorated with floral motifs or a neo-Gothic crown.
The CSTM collection includes some beautiful examples of early one- and two-burner gas lamps. A small, one-burner gas lamp is only 17 cm. long, and was mounted directly on a wall. This brass fixture features a rope-twist arm and one Argand burner enclosed in a metal cylinder. The cylinder is decorated with ten tiny windows finished in very fine pieces of mica. Iridescent mica must have flickered beautifully in the light produced by a gas flame. The valves and the fuel key are ornamented with the fleur-de-lis motif. Two small chains, finished with bells used to adjust the flame, add balance to the overall design. One burner made this fixture relatively inexpensive; still, although a little over-ornamented, this jewel added a touch of luxury to any interior. Ornamentation of a brass, two-burner lamp, is more discrete. The arms of this T-shaped pendant imitate a rope; two side supports are made from thin sheets of brass, twisted once in the middle. The brass is polished to reflect light. Small decorated screws, two of them enclosed in flower cups, keep various parts of the pendant in place. The end fittings are decorated with crosses and rhombi. In the early period of gas lighting there was a mistaken yet persistent perception among some buyers that light could not be produced without a wicker. Therefore, to make the customer comfortable with the new product, the design of many early gas lamps imitated the familiar look of a candle. The rat-tail burners of this pendant closely resemble two candles.
A gasolier, currently on display at the Museum, is a beautiful example of an expensive, multi-burner gas chandelier designed for a parlour, a library, or a dining room. Virtually every element of this fixture is ornamented with floral patterns, scrolls, and lace-like metal work. The gasolier, made in 1890, was designed to compete with electric fixtures that at the end of the nineteenth century were quickly gaining a share of the residential lighting market.
Electric lighting grew out of 19th-century scientific discoveries in England, France, and the United States in the production of electricity and subsequent technical innovations that promoted its transmission and distribution to an increasing number of consumers. The first innovation, the arc lamp, was the culmination of a series of experiments begun in 1847 by William Edward Staite and Rooks Evelyn Bell Crompton in England, Charles F. Brush in the United States, and Paul Jablochkoff in France. The persistence of the familiar aesthetics of a simple candle—this pre-industrial source of lighting synonymous with illumination itself— is again evident in the early experiments with electric lighting devices. For example, the first electric lamps designed by Paul Jablochkoff not only imitated the appearance of a candle, but were called electric candles. The carbon filaments in the lamp were arranged in a circular holder, similar to a simple candle holder, and were placed vertically. The opal glass globe placed on top of the candle was finished in a neo-Gothic, most often brass, coronet, which added an air of splendour to the invention. The globe also had a practical role; it diffused the light of the electric candle, which was said to be one hundred times stronger than that of a gas lamp. A Canadian inventor, J.A.I. Craig, was inspired by Jablochkoff’s candles when he showcased electric lighting in Montreal in 1878, the first such demonstration in Canada. Unfortunately, there are no descriptions of any ornamentation of Craig’s electric candle, yet as a prosperous furniture manufacturer, he was well aware no doubt of the latest fashions in decorative arts.
Available commercially by the end of the 1870s, arc lamps, almost exclusively used to illuminate streets, were large and imposing. The simple, dark cast iron frame was formed in the U-shape, with a light arc formed between carbons suspended in the middle of the lamp. Promoted as more secure, economical, and efficient than gas lamps, arc lamps were designed to convey the idea of a safe, reliable, and robust fixture and were often lacking in ornamentation.
Decorating the streets of Ontario around 1918, the luminaire manufactured by Powerlite Devices in Toronto was made in cast iron and porcelain, although in many Canadian cities by about 1910, the light standard with a pressed metal pole, lighter than cast iron, had been an earlier and more efficient innovation. Decorative touches inspired by a Greek column can be seen on the base, pole, and globe. The five-globe incandescent light standards drew public attention from the moment they appeared on Toronto streets. In fact, The Evening Telegram reported at the time that each of the globes had an output equal to one of “the present arc lights,” and it recorded the reactions of passersby: “The street was so bright that a person could read a newspaper at any point along the street.” “It’s the best illuminating system I have ever seen. I tried dropping a car ticket and small coins on the pavement and looking for them. I couldn’t lose them…the lights are splendid…. No women need be timid about walking along a street so well-lighted.”
It would be impossible to describe in detail the many and various styles and decorative elements represented in the CSTM collection of gas, arc, and incandescent lamps in this short article: early light bulbs which showcase experiments with shape and colour; ornamental residential and street lamps; a beautiful set of lamps from the Union Station in Ottawa; as well as specialty, bicycle, miners’, and signal lights. All these aspects of the decorative arts associated with the technological function of street and interior illumination reflect the early evolution and stylistic history of public and private lighting in Canada.
Excerpted from Fall/Winter 2013 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.
Anna Adamek is a historian of technology and curator responsible for the National Lighting Collection at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.
Louise Trottier is a consultant and former curator at CSTM with a particular interest in Art Nouveau lighting.
1 Described by F. Askwith in an unpublished paper, mid-1970s, “A Historical Sketch of the Electrical Utility Industry in the Ottawa Area,” in the City of Ottawa Archives.
2 D. P. Myers, Gaslighting in America: A Pictorial Survey, 1815-1910 (New York: Dover Publications, 1978), 12-13.
Left to right:
An arc street lamp, circa 1880
Two-burner pendant gas lamp, 1896
A gasolier, 1890