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Florence Cole as a child

Gas lighting in houses
in the early 1900s

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Gas lighting: the latest modern convenience

old gas ceiling lamp, showing its chains to control the flow of gas and hence the brightness of the glowing mantle.

Gas ceiling lamp showing chains to control the flow of gas and hence the brightness of the glowing mantles.

When I was a child growing up in the early 1900s, we considered ourselves very fortunate that our house had gas lighting laid on. Few working class households in the early 1900s had it. (Electric lighting and gas heating and cooking came to our Victorian style terraces much later.) My grandmother on my mother's side only ever had only oil lamps and candles, but we lived on a housing estate that was regarded as modern and state-of-the-art at the time. There was gas lighting in the streets, too.

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When gas lamps were lit

shade of an old gas lamp showing the mantle

Inside the shade of a gas lamp showing the fitting of the gas mantle.

A mantle in an old gas lamp showing its detailed structure, fragile but still intact

A mantle for a gas lamp, showing its structure.

Gas lamps had to be lit every time we wanted light. So they were only lit when someone wanted to stay in a room for some time. For short-term and emergency use, we either moved around in the semi-dark or used candles, lit with matches. There was always a box of matches and a candle in a candlestick beside our beds at night. We were, though, discouraged from using them, because of the fire hazard and because of dripping wax over the floor or furniture. Anyway our eyes were quite used to the dark and there was some dim light at the front of the house from the gas streetlamp along the road. We had chamber pots so that we didn't have to go outside to the lavatory at night.

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How gas lighting worked: gas mantles

Household gas lamps worked by heating something called a 'mantle' with a gas flame. The mantle then glowed brightly, lighting up the room. Lamps had two chains: one to turn the gas on and the other to turn it off. These chains could also adjust the flow of the gas and hence the brightness of the mantle.

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How to strengthen gas mantles

A gas mantle at the moment of lighting

A mantle at the moment of lighting. Detail of a screen shot from an old film.

Gas mantles were extremely fragile, and once they had been heated, they crumbled very easily indeed. They were made from a material that looked like a fine honeycombed silk. To protect them; to spread their light; and of course for decorative purposes, there was always a glass cover of some sort screwed round them. In our house, this was a globe: the top half was milk-white frosted glass and the lower half was frosted with a pattern on it. There were, though, other colours and shapes.

Mantles could be strengthened by soaking them in vinegar. They were ready for use when dry.

Albert Smith

Mantles, being so fragile, had to be replaced quite frequently. We bought new ones from the oil shop, each one always in its own cardboard box to protect it.

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How gas mantles were bought and fitted

A gas mantle came from the shop as a small, flat fabric mesh bag which was impregnated with a metal salt.

When first fitted to a gas burner, the bag inflated, the fabric was burnt away and the salt oxidised into a very delicate rigid structure, the same shape but somewhat smaller than the inflated bag.

Then, in use, the gas was contained by the mantle bag. At the multitude of holes in the mesh, it met the air and burning took place; the mantle became white hot, so giving out light.

After first use, mantles were so delicate that the slightest knock made them disintegrate. Partially disintegrated mantles were common, which made the light flicker and produce moving shadows. Then the mantles needed to be replaced.

Neil Cryer

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How gas lamps were lit

We did the lighting with a match through a hole in the bottom of the globe, taking care not to touch the fragile mantle. Some families used wax tapers which were like very thin candles about 8 inches long. These, being longer than matches, were easier to use, although they did have to be lit with a match first or from the fire, and it was all too easy to touch the mantle and for drops of the wax to fall off.

When the gas was lit, it made a popping sound.

Fun for children

I have fond childhood memories of Sunday visits to my grandparents who had gas lamps. The highlight of the visit was my being allowed to 'light the gas' with its associated popping sound.

John Lindop

The lamps in some houses, particularly in later years, had pilot lights which were alight all the time and which delivered the gas through a narrow tube. This tube was usually made to weave and curve in exactly the same way as the main supply pipe, so that it looked like part of the decoration, as in the photo below. Such lamps could look very pretty, particularly when they were in a group arrangement.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer
webmaster

antique gas lamps with their working parts labelled: the supply with its pull-chain controls; the pilot lights and mantles

Ceiling-style antique gas lamps showing the pipes for carrying the gas for the pilot light, the mantles and the chains to control the flow of gas and hence the brightness of the glowing mantles.

A wall gas lamp powered by a visible gas pipe.

A gas lamp powered by a visible gas pipe.

Gas lamp in a school hall in the 1930s

Gas lamp in a school hall in the 1930s, detail from a photo courtesy of Desmond Dyer. Note how the glass globe with its fragile mantle was protected from inadvertent breakage by the children.

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Gas pipes

The gas for the lamps in most rooms of the house came in through a pipe from the centre of the ceiling. In the scullery the gas came from a pipe in the wall.

In our house, these pipes were hidden but in some places I saw them running on top of walls, as if the gas supply had been added as an afterthought. I always thought that this looked very ugly.

Keep gas lighting and don't trust electric lights!

Many houses at the outbreak of World War Two were still using gas for domestic room lighting. My family had the old gas fittings on the wall at 153 Bulwer Road, Edmonton. Although we had been converted to electric lighting by this time, Dad retained the gas fittings, as he did not trust the new fangled form of lighting by electricity.

Peter Johnson

Unless otherwise stated, the lamps on this page were photographed at the National Museum of Wales.

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