This unusual looking object was recovered by archaeologists excavating a Baltimore privy filled with garbage from a late 19th-century retirement home. Historic lighting scholar Donald Linebaugh suggests that this copper alloy artifact once functioned as a gas pipe connection refitted for reuse with electricity (Linebaugh, personal communication 2017). Since the privy appeared to have been filled around 1910, when the facility moved to a new location, it is certainly feasible that the gas lighting had been converted to electricity during the forty years the facility was in operation.
While gas lighting gave way to electricity, it was once at the forefront of lighting technology. In the early 19th century, the world after sunset was a shadowy one, lit by candles and oil lamps. But lighting with gas changed the way people lived after dark, since it burned brighter than oil and illuminated larger areas, making it effective as street lighting.
London, in 1807, was the first city to embrace gas street lighting (Beadenkopf 1916). In North America, Baltimore gained that distinction in 1816 when the city formed the Baltimore Gas Company[i]. Artist Rembrandt Peale, who often displayed items of scientific interest at his Baltimore Museum, demonstrated gas lighting for audiences there, beginning in the summer of 1816. The Federal Gazette reported in June that the carburetted hydrogen gas gave off a “very brilliant and pleasing light” (Federal Gazette 1816).
In giving his demonstrations, Peale was likely hoping to attract investors. For far from being a scientific novelty, Peale recognized the potential of gas for the city’s future. On June 13, 1816, he proposed to the city that its street lights be converted to gas. Street lighting had been a part of the city’s infrastructure since 1784, when the Maryland legislature passed an act to establish a night watch and the erection of oil lamps (Ruckert 1980:77).
On June 17th, 1816, the Baltimore City Council granted Peale and the Gas Light Company of Baltimore permission to use gas lighting in the city. Incorporated in 1817, it was America’s first gaslight company (Scharf 1881:500). The first gas street light was erected at the corner of Baltimore and Holliday Streets in February of 1817 (Chappelle 2000:74).
Peale produced the gas in a structure behind the museum and it was supplied to users through underground wooden pipes. Initially the gas was produced from tar or wood, but by the mid-19th century, it was distilled from coal. Electrical lighting first appeared in Baltimore in 1881, but full electrification of the city took many years. Gas proved difficult to unseat, since it could be used for heating and cooking in addition to illumination. Electricity also required a great deal of infrastructure in the form of generating plants and electrical poles and wires.
What began in early 19th-century Baltimore as a way to sell evening tickets to a museum became a technological innovation that changed the nighttime landscape of cities across the world. While urban landscapes are no longer lit with gas, there has been a resurgence of sales in outdoor gas lighting fixtures for home and business use. In 1991, a replica of the original 1817 gas street light was placed at the corner of North Holliday and East Baltimore Streets—the location of the city’s first gas street light.
[i] Thomas Scharf’s 1881 publication History of Baltimore City and County states that Benjamin Henfrey of Pennsylvania used gas street lighting in Richmond, Virginia in 1802, but I was unable to find any other supporting documentation. Henfrey did appear to have been the first to demonstrate coal gas light in the United States—actually in Baltimore—in 1802 (EH.net; Federal Gazette, March 11, 1802).
Beadenkopf, George. 1916 History of Illuminating Gas; Centenary of its Introduction in Baltimore. Monthly Journal of the Engineers Club of Baltimore, Volume 6, No. 4: 75-100. Published by the Engineers Club of Baltimore.
Chapelle, Suzanne Ellery Green. 2000 Baltimore; An Illustrated History. American Historical Press, Sun Valley, California.
EH.net. Manufactured and Natural Gas Industry. Economic History Association. Website accessed September 7, 2018 at https://eh.net/encyclopedia/manufactured-and-natural-gas-industry/.
Federal Gazette. 1802 Federal Gazette and Baltimore Daily Advertiser, March 11, 1802. Baltimore, Maryland.
Federal Gazette. 1816 Editorial. Federal Gazette and Baltimore Daily Advertiser , June 14, 1816. Baltimore, Maryland.
Linebaugh, Donald. 2017 Personal communication.
Ruckert, Norman G. 1980 Federal Hill; A Baltimore National Historic District. Bodine and Associates, Inc., Baltimore.
Scharf, Thomas J. 1881 History of Baltimore City and County; from the Earliest Period to the Present Day: Including Biographical Sketches of Their Representative Men. Louis H. Everts, Philadelphia.