Maggie Charles

Electricity comes to Glessner House

In last week’s article we looked at the early history of electricity on Prairie Avenue, beginning with the installation of incandescent lighting in the Joan W. Doane house in 1882.  In this installment we will look specifically at electrical service at the Glessner House. 

When the Glessners completed their home at 1800 S. Prairie Avenue in December 1887, the house was lit throughout with gas lighting.  An interesting and “high tech” component of the gas lighting service in the house was a central control panel located in the hallway leading from the main hall to the master bedroom.  This panel (shown above) contained ten pairs of buttons that allowed the Glessners (or their staff) to turn on a single gas wall sconce remotely in each of the ten main rooms of the house – first floor main hall, second floor main hall, library, parlor, dining room, and the five family and guest rooms.  This eliminated the problem of having to walk into a darkened room, providing enough light to enter and then light the other sconces.  The panel only worked for the gas lighting, it was never converted once electricity was brought into the house.

In early 1890, the Chicago Edison Company began advertising for customers on the South Side between 16th and 35th Streets, as they were completing a new power plant on Wabash near 27th Street (see advertisement above, from the January 25, 1890 Chicago Tribune).  One of those interested in obtaining electrical service was John Glessner, who indicated that his house was already wired for service.  Presumably the wiring (which would have been direct current) was installed at the time the house was built, although the building specifications make no mention of it.

Work on installing electrical service took place during the summer of 1892.  John Glessner provided an update on the work in a letter dated July 26, 1892 and sent to his wife who was already at their summer estate The Rocks.  He wrote, in part:

“The electric fixture men have done better today but by no means well, though I believe tomorrow will get them out of places where I don’t want them to be – the rooms where there are unlocked drawers, etc.  The pictures are down from our bedroom walls; indeed there are only 12 more to be taken down in the house.  George’s have been replaced and I’ll replace those in the rear guest room tomorrow. . . The painters have finished up stairs with the exception of one side of Fanny’s dressing room where the fixture man marked it . . . The light brackets have been replaced in the parlor.  Just 4 weeks this morning since you left.  What a lot of dirt has been made here since then!”

When John Glessner joined his family at The Rocks on Friday July 29th, he reported on a serious incident that had taken place as a result of the conversion from gas to electric.  Frances Glessner recalled the incident in her journal:

“John does not look well.  The weather has been exceedingly hot in Chicago, he has been bothered by workmen in the house and to finish all the night before he left for here, a workman had left a gas pipe open when the gas was not turned on – then when it was turned on in the evening Maggie and John walked through the corridor with a lighted taper not knowing it was escaping and the whole thing exploded, burning them both – John’s neck, ears, hair, mustache were burned – his neck, ears, and a place on his head are blistered.  Maggie was burned worse.  The linen closet took fire – but this was not discovered until the next day.  The plate glass from the loggia door was blown out and blown across the street into McBirney’s stable.  The roof beams were moved out of place but not seriously.   Dr. Dudley, Dr. Kirk and Dr. Adams could not be found.  Dr. Billings dressed the burns.  Maggie’s dress was cut from her arms, her burns dressed and she was put to bed.  John left for here on Thursday morning.  We knew nothing of all of this until he told us.  Lizzie Benson and Alice are taking care of Maggie and the house.”

(Note:  “Maggie” refers to Maggie Charles, a servant in the house).

The installation of the electric fixtures had another major impact on the house – it resulted in the repapering in a number of rooms, presumably because of the need to open up walls to access/install wiring.  The most dramatic example of this was the installation of the William Pretyman designed wall covering in the parlor, but many of the other rooms received new wallpapers as well, all Morris & Co. designs.

Wiring in the basement portion of the house was run through exposed wood conduit attached directly to the plaster walls and ceilings, some of which is still visible today, such as this section in the laundry room.

Although wiring was frequently run directly through the gas piping, which served as a form of conduit, it appears other wiring was run through the walls with no conduit at all.  The wiring above was discovered in the corner guestroom in 2012 while installing modern wiring for new wall sconces and was run along the outside of the gas pipe.

Many of the original gas fixtures, including those in the main hall and parlor were converted to electricity.  Photographs taken in 1923 show other rooms with different fixtures - whether these were installed in 1892 or at a later date is unknown.

Although the house was converted to electricity, it is interesting to note that other forms of lighting were not abandoned altogether.  In 1901, Frances Glessner wrote instructions to the staff that would remain in the house during the summer, taking care of Mr. Glessner when he traveled back to Chicago from The Rocks.  In those instructions, she states in part:

“In closing the house up in the evening, watch the kerosene lamps after they are lighted to see that they do not blaze up too much and smoke.  The lamps in the parlor are very apt to do this. . .  Light all of the kerosene lamps in the library ever night while the gentlemen are at home.”
She also added a reminder to conserve the electricity, adding “Be as careful as possible of the lights, using none where they are not needed.”
Unlike today, where electrical service is standardized, in those early years different companies produced their own version of receptacles (outlets) and plugs.  When you purchased a lamp or other electrical device, you would then attach the appropriate plug that worked with the system in place in your home.  The Glessners utilized the “Diamond H” plugs, manufactured by The Hart Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut.   The plug was large by today’s standards, and featured two round prongs with a thin flat prong in between. 
This plug is still attached to the Daum lamp which sits on the desk in the courtyard bedroom.
This plug is attached to the lamp which is used on the partner’s desk in the library.  The plug and receptacle still function perfectly today.  Advertisements for the Hart company praised their version of the receptacles, noting that they had a mechanism that closed the holes when the plug was removed, making them dust-proof and dirt-proof.
Interestingly, Frances Glessner does not record her impressions upon returning to Chicago in October 1892 and seeing her house illuminated with incandescent lights for the first time.  It would be the first time she lived with electric lighting - it would not be installed at The Rocks for another twenty years.