On April 15, 1959, Mayor Richardson Dilworth, resplendent in a three piece suit, mounted a ladder and extinguished Philadelphia’s last gas streetlight. The frilly fixture, dating from the early 1900s, was located at 45th and Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia.
Residents smiled and applauded, glad that this vestige of the Victorian era was gone. In postwar Philadelphia, there was little room for Gilded Age nostalgia. The city had suffered greatly since the stock market crash of 1929. Streets were crumbling, water and gas mains constantly breaking, and the housing stock dilapidated and overcrowded. Federal money was flooding into the city, and government officials were happy to use it to tear down the old and build anew, especially new housing developments and highways. Dilworth was also planning the revitalization of the 18th century fabric of Society Hill, arguably the first residential historic preservation initiative in a major American city. Under city planner Edmund Bacon’s supervision, Society Hill’s streets would be marked by lampposts modeled on those from the Early Republic, only lit by electricity.
When it was first introduced in the mid-19th century, however, gas lighting was on the cutting edge of technology. Before gas, whale oil candles provided the best source of light after dusk, especially those made from the precious “spermaceti” oil found in the heads of sperm whales. In their relentless, around the world pursuit of home lighting fuel and industrial lubricants, the men of Nantucket and New Bedford hunted many species of whales to the brink of extinction.
Mayor Joseph Sill Clark introduces the 1950s documentary “Philadelphia: Our Changing City.”
Unlike natural gas, coal gas is manufactured rather than drilled, the byproduct of the so-called coking process, in which bituminous coal is “destructively distilled” in beehive ovens into a porous, low-sulfur product in a process similar to how charcoal is created from wood. Coke became the essential fuel in iron and steel production, which was why the “steel king” Andrew Carnegie of Pittsburgh went into a star-crossed business partnership with the “coke king” Henry Clay Frick. A harsh, uncompromising, and utterly humorless man, Frick did not much think of his workers. After a public row with Carnegie following the Homestead Strike of 1892, Frick — who had survived an assassination attempt — supposedly wrote his cheery, library-building former partner, “Tell him I’ll meet him in Hell.”
Mining and coking coal it was a brutal business — conditions were appalling, deadly, and completely unregulated. Yet coal its byproducts built many a great Philadelphia family fortune. It was the energy boom of the 19th century, and formed one part of what social historian Nathaniel Burt called the “iron triangle” of Philadelphia’s industrial economy: iron, coal, and railroads. Some business owners became increasingly intransigent as labor unrest festered. As George Baer, president of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad put it when the miners went on strike in 1902:
“The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of this country.”
Such language made President Theodore Roosevelt foam at the mouth, and caused Baer to be called “Divine Right” George behind his back.
For most of the 19th century, Philadelphia’s middle and upper class families illuminates their homes from top to bottom with coal gas, which came from mains under the streets and piped directly into houses. Each sconce had to be lit manually, and chandeliers had to be lowered from the ceiling using a weighted pulley. If gas offered relatively convenience compared to the candles of the past: it did have one significant drawback: the quality of the light. Rather than the warm glow of whale oil candles, the light from gas sconces and chandeliers had a rather grayish, ghostly hue. Many women of the era disliked how they looked at a gaslit ball or house party. And if a gas flame flickered out while the valve was still on, the occupants of a house could be asphyxiated in their sleep.
A look inside a gas lit home.
By the 1880s, however, Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb had arrived, and those that had the means ripped open the walls of their homes and installed electric wiring. The discovery of petroleum in Western Pennsylvania in 1859 led to another energy boom, as kerosene became a preferred home lighting fuel, especially in smaller communities that did not have a gas works. Yet coal gas continued to light Philadelphia homes well into the twentieth century.
The United Gas Improvement Company, a trust created in 1882 by streetcar magnate and developer Peter Arrell Brown Widener and his cronies, held a near-monopoly of the city’s gas business for many years, and wielded vast power in City Hall. Photograph of suburban West Philadelphia in the 1910s shows upper-middle class housing developments following the gas lines westward into what was previously bucolic farmland. The gas lights may be gone, but to this day, many old Philadelphia homes still have gas lighting lines buried behind their plaster walls. Then as now, the source of our home energy is usually kept out of sight, and out of mind.
Mary L. Knapp, An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City, 1835-65 (New York, NY: Girandole Books, 2012), pp.48-49.
Les Standiford, “Excerpt: Meet You In Hell,” NPR Books, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4717704