Extending the Day

Joseph Russell’s New Bedford Oil and Lamp Store, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1853

Joseph Russell’s New Bedford Oil and Lamp Store, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1853

Joseph Russell’s family in New Bedford, Massachusetts, established the town’s whaling business in the 1700s. Russell opened the Philadelphia store to sell whale oil for lamps.

Artificial light in the 1800s changed concepts of time, work, leisure activities, and consumption. Lighting systems shifted from candles, to whale and other oils, to coal gas—often all were used simultaneously. Improved lighting increased productivity as factory workers labored far into the night. Lit public spaces extended the hours spent in oyster houses, theatres, and museums and provided shoppers better views of consumer goods.

Oil lamp, patented by John H. Irwin, 1862

This lamp used coal oil; kerosene lamps followed similar designs. The bright and economical flame permitted people to accomplish work at night.

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Gas lamp, used by District of Columbia schools, mid-to-late 1800s

Gas lamp, used by District of Columbia schools, mid-to-late 1800s

By the late 1850s most cities, factories, schools, theatres, and shops were lit by gas. This technological change had a marked effect on the American economy and industrialization.

Charles Oakford & Son’s hat store, photograph by W. & F. Langenheim, 1854

Charles Oakford & Son’s hat store, photograph by W. & F. Langenheim, 1854

Charles Oakford installed gas fixtures in his Philadelphia hat shop, providing his customers with well-lit views of his merchandise.

Courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

Tin-plate iron Argand lamp, about 1800–1840

Tin-plate iron Argand lamp, about 1800–1840

Factory owners used the bright, steady light of the Argand lamp to prolong the workday.

Lent by Dan Mattausch and Nancy Mattausch

Rubens Peale’s cockspur gas burner, 1814, manufactured by Otis Chaffee and Joseph Lyon

Rubens Peale’s cockspur gas burner, 1814, manufactured by Otis Chaffee and Joseph Lyon

Rubens Peale’s brother and fellow artist Rembrandt Peale founded the first American coal gas company in 1817. It lit their museum and Baltimore’s Belvedere Theatre with cockspur burners.

Lent by Dan Mattausch and Nancy Mattausch

Joseph Russell, Parlor at Mrs. Smith's Boarding House, Broad and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia, 1853

Joseph Russell, Parlor at Mrs. Smith's Boarding House, Broad and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia, 1853

As indoor lighting improved with gas piped into homes, concepts of work and leisure changed. Families gathered in the parlor to read, enjoy games, or do handwork.

Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with funds contributed by the Barra Foundation, Inc., 1994

Scrimshaw whale panbone, about 1840

A scene of whale hunting is depicted on this whale’s jawbone. By 1857 New Bedford’s yearly catch was valued at 10 million dollars.

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Patent model of whale oil lamp, invented by Alonzo Platt, 1836

Platt recommended this lamp for cotton factories—as long as a glass beneath caught sparks before they could ignite the cotton.

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Patent model of solar lamp, invented by Robert Cornelius, 1843

Lit by cheap lard oil or kitchen grease, Robert Cornelius’ lamp outsold those fueled by the expensive whale oil. His company became the largest lighting company in America.

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Robert Cornelius, self-portrait, 1839

Robert Cornelius, self-portrait, 1839

A photographer before joining the family lamp-making business, Cornelius took this self-portrait by staring motionless at the camera for five minutes.

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Richard Caton Woodville, Politics in an Oyster House, 1848

Richard Caton Woodville, Politics in an Oyster House, 1848

Woodville incorporated a new technology in his painting. On the wall behind the subjects’ heads, he placed the popular coal gas burner and its piping.

Courtesy of The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Ticket for social levee at City Hall, No. 3 Amoskeag Mill, 1848

This evening event marked the winter lighting of the mills. Although artificial light lengthened the workday and increased profits, open flames created dangerous working conditions.

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