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Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 12:01 am

When Springfield got gas

Springfield’s homes and were lit by gas starting in 1855. The Illinois State Journal declared that gas light “is not only more brilliant than that of candles and lamps but...is much cheaper and more convenient.”

 

“The City is now lighted up with Gas with great success,” John T. Stuart wrote to his daughter in February of 1855. “It looks very brilliant whenever in use and especially the State House is beautifully lighted.”

He had every reason to be impressed. Gaslight represented a dramatic improvement over candles and oil lamps, previously the two main sources of artificial light. Prior to the introduction of gas light in 1855, people were accustomed to sharing pockets of light at levels of illumination much lower than what we are accustomed to in modern life.

Candles were ubiquitous in pre-Civil War homes. Springfield consumers had their choice between tallow and spermaceti candles. Tallow candles, made from the rendered fat of animals, were least expensive, but they were also sticky to the touch, smoky and left an unpleasant odor after they’d been extinguished.

Spermaceti candles were made from the oil found inside the heads of sperm whales. These candles burned brightly with little smoke or odor, but were also increasingly expensive as the whale population was decimated due to overhunting.

After 1854, Springfield’s citizens could also purchase stearin candles, made of stearic acid separated from animal fats. These candles did not require frequent snuffing and were priced midway between tallow and spermaceti candles. Proctor and Gamble’s candles were known as “star candles” because of their logo stamped on shipping boxes, and eventually “star candles” became a general term for stearin candles.

The Lincoln family (who never embraced gas light in Springfield) favored star candles. Their ledger at C.M. Smith’s store showed that they bought a pound of candles at 25 cents per pound approximately once every three or four weeks during the winter, less frequently in the summer.

The Lincolns, like other middle-class families in town, supplemented their candle lights with lamps that burned either lard or spermaceti oil. These were usually found, either singly or in pairs, in the parlor or sitting room of the house.

With an adjustable flame that burned at six to ten candlepower, lamps provided a distinct advantage over candles in terms of illumination. They were not without their drawbacks, however – they were expensive to purchase and expensive to keep supplied with fuel. They were also labor intensive, requiring their wicks trimmed daily and their shades cleaned weekly.

The first gas lighting system in America was installed on the streets of Baltimore in 1817. Gas lights were initially found on streets, in factories and in public buildings, as they were thought to be unsuitable for residential use. In 1840 Edgar Allen Poe declared that gas light was “totally inadmissible within doors. Its harsh and unsteady light offends. No one having both brains and eyes will use it.”

Nevertheless, by the 1840s and 1850s, gas lighting did find its way into people’s homes, particularly in cities. In Springfield, talk of starting a gas works began in 1853. In March of 1854, a committee comprised of Ninian Edwards, Benjamin Edwards, John T. Stuart, William J. Black and Stephen T. Logan issued a request for proposals to gas light companies for the erection of a gas works in this city. By August, a charter was awarded, pipes were being laid, and gas was being produced from local coal; by February of 1855, the Daily Register was able to boast that “our city and public buildings are now brilliantly lighted, nightly, with the most beautiful of all the varieties of artificial light, and we are permanently advanced to the class of places of sufficient consequence to justify and support this method of lighting.”

Gas light provided illumination equivalent to 15 candlepower; a six-arm chandelier burning as brightly as 90 candles at the twist of a valve must have seemed like a miracle. Anticipating the installation of gas pipes in her house, John T. Stuart’s wife, Mary, remarked “The fixtures will be fitted in the house this week and the gas let in on the first of June, won’t we be light and no lamps to fill either.”

This new utility, widely praised for the brilliant light it provided, did take some getting used to: for several weeks the Springfield Gas Light Company ran notices in the paper providing the following advice to consumers of gas: “Do not blow the light out when you wish to extinguish it, but shut off the gas.” Gas lights remained the main source of illumination in Springfield until electric lights were introduced in the 1880s – but that is another story.  

Erika Holst is curator of collections at the Springfield Art Association.

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