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The Illuminating Beginnings of Gas Boilers

In this episode, Dan Holohan takes us back to 1917 when the gas lighting industry, threatened by Edison’s lightbulb, branched into the business of gas boilers and furnaces.


Episode Transcript

Ah, gaslight. How romantic that must have been. Or was it?

A friend sent me a booklet that New Jersey's Public Service Gas Company (which is now PSE&G) published in 1917. This little gem appeared during a time when electricity was sweeping the nation and most owners of new homes had to make a choice between gas lighting and electric lighting. I thought the way that the Gas Company went about their business back then was fascinating. It was the sort of thing that came out of a company that must have seen the handwriting on the wall, but didn't have much choice at that point because the only thing they had to sell in 1917 was, well, gas. And when your only tool is a hammer, doesn’t everything start to look like a nail? This is from their booklet:

"There is not a room in your home that would not be made more useful and therefore more valuable by having ample gas connections for lighting and heating.

"Since gas piping is probably the cheapest material that goes into a house, it is certainly worth making provisions for its installation in every room and fireplace when you consider the many comforts gas appliances bring to a home.

"Illumination by gas has been so greatly improved recently that more gaslight is being used today than ever before because incandescent gaslight has peculiar eye-resting properties, which make it an ideal light for reading and working.

"Today, more meals are cooked, more water heated, more rooms heated, more refuse destroyed, and more clothes laundered by gas than ever before.

"Successful builders regard the piping of every room in the house for gas, for both lighting and heating, as the highest type of insurance. For by equipping all rooms with gas lighting and heating outlets, their dwellings can, in this respect at least, compete with buildings that may be erected later.

"These builders know from experience that they have been amply repaid for installing gas piping outlets in all rooms and fireplaces by enjoying the patronage of tenants and purchasers who know the value of gas service and insist upon having it.

"Since the satisfactory operation of gas appliances is dependent upon having gas outlets conveniently placed and of proper size, it is desirable that architects, plumbers and builders should consult with the Gas Company on this important matter.

"You are free to consult with us at any time without expense or obligation on your part about any matters in connection with gas service."

So there we are. It's 1917 and gaslighting is on the wane. It may have been because the gaslights were eating the oxygen in the houses and turning every room into a dormitory, or a mortuary. It may have been that you had to keep the windows open during the winter to keep from suffocating, but never mind that. Consider the lovely glow!

From their booklet again: "Why do you need modern gaslights in your home? Incandescent gaslight has peculiar properties of its own that make it an ideal light for homes, as it enables those living therein to work, read, sew, or study without eye strain.

"Nothing needs more careful planning in a home than its illumination, if the eyesight of those living therein is to be conserved to the fullest extent. “It is also a well-known fact that incandescent gaslight is restful and pleasing to the eyes. Therefore, provision should be made for its general use, particularly for reading purposes.

"Aside from its value as an illuminant, gas lighting aids the ventilation of a home materially. Some people have the erroneous idea that gas lighting vitiates the air, but all impartial investigations by competent authorities have shown that this opinion is groundless and, on the contrary, the burning of gas in small quantities such as is required for gas lighting, is always accompanied by an improvement in the quality of the air."

So there you go! Put a dozen or so open gas flames in your home and watch as the air quality gets better, not worse. And buy some of that Prince Albert tobacco and some rolling papers while you're at it because smoking soothes your throat. Hey, five out five doctors agree with us!

As for heating, they were selling Solar Grand Fireplace Heaters, which would be gas logs to us these days. Listen, this is marvelously romantic stuff!

"The glow of the hearth and the red-coal effect give a charm to the Solar Grand Fireplace Heater, which recalls the many pleasant times spent in the days gone by, when all the family gathered around the open hearth evenings.

"And those of us who now live in heated homes know that, even though the method of heating may be otherwise ideal, a hot-water or steam radiator or register at its best is cheerless in looks, and not inviting “And there are days in the early Fall and late Spring when in mid-day the heat, instead of being welcome, becomes a nuisance, but in homes having a Solar Grand, the experience is that the Solar Grand furnishes all the heat necessary or desirable at these periods, thereby lessening the coal bill and the furnace-tending work."

Whew, what a sentence! Doesn't it make you wonder why they didn’t just sell folks a gas-fired boiler or a gas-fired furnace? I think they were walking on eggs with boilers and furnaces because coal was king in 1917. They were seeing their business slipping through their hands like a greased rope because of these newfangled electric wires that so many Americans seemed to want. They did begin to put their toes in the water as far as boilers went, though.

Listen: "It may be that we can heat your home with gas. During the past year, gas auxiliary house heating, by means of systems like the one in the illustration have been tried out and those who have installed these gas heating systems have expressed their unqualified approval of the results.

“We would be glad to furnish further particulars to the many that are interested in shortening the coal-furnace-tending season.

“At present, systems are available for use in conjunction with steam and hot water boilers."

The illustration was of a relatively small gas-fired boiler sitting next to a humongous coal-fired steam boiler. They shared piping and you have to use one or the other because the boiler waterlines were quite offset. That was their toehold to the gas heating appliance. And the rest is history. The public went for the concept they mentioned in passing, which was central heating, not for the one that was their main focus (gaslighting). Life is so uncertain, isn’t it?

You know what I get out of reading all this old stuff? Perspective. At some point, the Public Service Gas Company realized they were fighting a losing battle with gaslighting and got on board with electricity. They changed the name of the company to PSE&G. Public Service Electric and Gas, and that was that. You cut your losses and you walk away from a loser.

As I sit and read this wonderful old brochure, though, I can't help but think about those "competent authorities" that so believed in the "eye-resting benefits" of gaslighting. I wonder if those authorities changed their minds as electric lighting kicked their butts back into the Nineteenth Century. And you know what? It seems to me that no matter what the current technology or product offering is, there will always be "competent authorities" who swear that this stuff is the best that will ever be. As a writer, you know what? I've been guilty of that myself. I like to think of myself as a recovering competent-authority nowadays. I question more things now that I’m an old guy.

Public Service was the Gas Company in 1917, and their main business was gaslight. They, and others like them, put the whale-oil folks out of business. They used gas made from coal to do this. Coal was King.

It was only the threat from Thomas Edison that sent the Gas Company into the business of gas boilers and furnaces. In 1917, as war raged, they were just putting their toe into the water. If it weren't for the trouble the United Mine Workers were making for King Coal back then, Public Service might have just kept pushing those Solar Grand Fireplace Heaters. Who knows? It's all about perspective, isn’t it?

I hope you enjoyed that story. If so, please share it with your friends. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast. I have many more Dead Men Tales to share with you. And I’m enjoying our time together. Thanks for listening.

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