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What's Up Magazine

Gas Lighting

Nov 09, 2010 08:15PM ● By Anonymous

Circa 1880, this simple fixture with an acid-etched globe serves as an important focal point in the restored bedroom of the Jackson Collins house in Centreville. Called a “harp” fixture, this single gasolier has the key to turn the gas light on and off positioned directly below where the burner once resided.


A variety of gas sconces, lamps, and hanging fixtures were created from bronze and brass. Sometimes plated with silver, nickel, or gilded, they were often ornamented with elaborate hanging crystals and sported etched-glass shades. But today, many of these lovely old gas lamps and fixtures have been discarded or reconfigured in ways that the average person cannot even recognize their original purpose.

Gas is still a popular fuel for both cooking and heating, and is also used in some outside and commercial lighting. A few devoted collectors will restore antique gas lamps and light them with gas, but most have now been converted to electricity. Although they may have lost their original burners, as well as the flexible tubes that once transported gas to the burner, they are relatively easy to identify. The antique gas lamp is one style of lighting that has not been widely reproduced and thus is more unusual and unique.

The first gas street-lighting system in the United States was installed in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1817. By 1863, there were 433 gas companies operating in the country. Boston was lit by gas in 1822 and New York in 1827. Philadelphia chartered its own gas company in 1835. Most city gas companies sold coal gas that was created from heated coal. Other varieties of gas, including acetylene, which is generated by the interaction of calcium carbide and water, were used in rural areas and small towns primarily between 1892 and 1909.

Gas lamps designed for table top use required a flexible hose to carry gas from a wall or ceiling pipe. Note the key to turn on the gas that is located on the side of the lamp's base.

So how can you tell if a lamp or fixture was at one time powered by gas? Yo u look for two things: a way to turn the gas burner on and off, and an interior tube for carrying gas to the burner. If you see a chain on a hanging fixture, it is not likely to have ever been fueled by gas. Called “gasoliers” and “brackets” during the era, chandeliers and sconces received their gas through pipes that were located in the wall or ceiling. Since the fixture’s interior tube was attached to a gas pipe, it did not have the large, raised back plate or canopy of an electric fixture. If a gas fixture has been electrified, a canopy is added to cover the electrical connections.

Gas was turned on and off with a key, which opened and closed the gas valve. Keys came in a variety of shapes to coordinate with the fixture’s decorative theme. Some were shaped like floral wreaths or tassels, while others were simple rings. On a gasolier or bracket, the key was either located in the middle of the arm or just below the burner. Table lamps received their gas supply through flexible tubing that was attached to the base of the lamp, where the key was also usually located.

Gas fixtures and lamps were produced in many different shapes and sizes. While earlier pieces tend to be more massive and ornate, they are easier to date because of the technology used in their design.

Three engineering advancements gradually altered the appearance of gas lighting, one being the size of the shades. In the mid 1870s, it was noted that the openings at the bottom of larger shades provided more space for air to circulate around the burner and, as such, provide a steadier light. Thus, shades having a smaller base fitting of 2-5/8 inches fell out of favor.

The open shape of the shades on this six-arm fixture was popular during the late 1800s. Note the difference in shape of the round keys and the deep bend of the arms when compared with the four-arm gasolier. Both fixtures are in the Jackson Collins House.

In 1890, the Welsbach mantle was introduced to the United States. Consisting of a cotton frame impregnated with thorium and cerium, this mantle gave off an incandescent glow when heated. It was used in conjunction with a gallery burner, which held the mantle over a Bunsen burner, and had a built-in chimney or shade holder. Gallery shades have no lip on the fitter.

The third major advancement was the invention of the inverted mantle, which made it possible for gas burners to face downwards and thus successfully compete with electric lighting. Introduced in 1897, the inverted mantle became available in this country in 1905.

In order to electrify a gas fixture, the interior tube must be expanded with a drill to allow space for wiring. When the wire is installed, the gas keys must remain stationary so they don’t interfere with the wiring. The gas burners are then replaced with electric sockets. If possible, original components should always be saved because it is still feasible for devoted fans of earlier technology to use gas with antique gas lighting fixtures. Original components also increase the value of an antique and help historians document the provenance of early lighting fixtures.