Another sign of progress in 1911: You could afford to use a lightbulb for a few hours each night. Maybe.

By walking around Santa Rosa’s neighborhoods after dark you could easily tell who was financially comfortable – just find the houses with burning lightbulbs. The things weren’t cheap; a 60W bulb cost about the equivalent of $18 today, and 100W would now be $26. Still, that was a big improvement of a couple of years earlier, when they were almost twice as expensive. (It would be a good idea to review an earlier article, “When we Leased our Light Bulbs.”)

The better price – and related improvement in a bulb’s longevity – was due to the discovery of how to make a bendable “ductile” tungsten filament in 1910. This was a Very Big Deal. Earlier bulb filaments were carbon (more heat than light and usually short-lived) or made from processed tungsten powder which was brighter and lasted longer than carbon, but had quality control problems and were significantly more fragile – see again the earlier article with its sidebar, “The Incredibly Interesting History of the Light Bulb Wars.” Making problems worse, Thomas Edison’s original lightbulb patents were expiring and his company, General Electric, was desperate to find a new product; even though the original tungsten bulbs were so delicate that they only worked when hanging straight down, GE pushed them anyway. The company’s salvation was that ductile tungsten invented by GE researcher William D. Coolidge, who also later came up with the x-ray tube still in use today. Coolidge’s lightbulbs, sold under the “Mazda” trademark became the standard for decades.

The ad at right, which appeared in the 1912 Santa Rosa Republican, showed how quickly the lighting situation had evolved. It was the first ad in the local papers that promoted lightbulbs available for purchase by the consumer; before, they were only available through the electric company or as part of a service. Yeah, it may seem expensive today to pay the equivalent of $18 for a 60W bulb, but hey, that light would probably last up to three whole months.

Then there was the price of electricity to use it. We can’t be certain what PG&E charged per kWh back then, but a lecture on ways to economize mentioned it cost about a nickel a day to have a single lightbulb burning for twelve hours daily, helpfully adding that a dozen bulbs could be used for an hour at the same cost. Either way it would be now about $1.20 a day, adjusted for inflation. Today it costs about 11ยข to using the same (presumably 60W) lightbulb – in other words, electricity was ten times more expensive back then. Yet they might have viewed it as a bargain; just a few years earlier in 1905, electrical service was more than 25 times what we currently pay.

The same lecturer demonstrated how using the right kind of globe over a bulb could increase light output dramatically. Although the article doesn’t mention the type of cover being used, from the description that a lightbulb’s glow was made sixteen times brighter suggests it was undoubtedly Holophane.

The Holophane Glass Company brought a scientific approach to the problem of lighting, and patented its unique shades and globes designed for maximum reflection and almost no absorption of light; depending upon the model, Holophanes could focus light downwards or splash it broadly over a ceiling, or both. (This collector has a remarkable photo gallery of the many different styles.) The patterns of the ribbed, prismatic glass controlled light with great precision but the other part of the secret sauce was the glass itself, which had a high lead content.*

The company’s trade magazine from this period, Holophane Illumination, often can be found promoting the synergy between using those superior Mazda lightbulbs inside your Holophane globes for the best light possible. It will probably come as no surprise to learn GE had controlling interest in the Holophane Glass Company, and early in 1911 obtained exclusive rights to sell Holophane products in U.S.

The overall situation might have improved, but woe to PG&E’s Santa Rosa manager, who apparently was fending off complaints about crappy lighting supposedly due to “weak current.” Near the end of the year the Press Democrat printed his rant about otherwise “good housewives” neglecting to clean their globes, although it’s unclear whether he is faulting them for buildup of horrible filth on the inside or outer. “They fail to give satisfactory light and the company is blamed,” he griped. Anyway, he said some of those squeaky wheels would be given new lightbulbs (presumably, Mazdas): “To overcome this that we are making a partial installation of new lights free of charge to educate the light-users to the necessity of having globes changed regularly. It will take less current and give better light for less money.”

*Although the dual gas-electric fixtures in Comstock House show the spare-no-expense Oates family considered good lighting very important, there is no evidence that Holophanes were originally used. The shades were not well known in the U.S. until they were exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, which took place just months before construction of the house began. When we remodeled kitchen and pantry lighting we designed it around three period Holophane styles that provide both superior general illumination and precision downlighting in the cooking areas.  Antique Holophanes are still widely available today and can easily be identified from later pressed-glass knockoffs by examining the inside of the shade; when viewed at a sharp angle, old Holophane glass will appear to be silver-grey and almost shimmers like a hot desert road.

H. W. Jacobs received a large shipment of wire drawn Sterling Mazda lamps Thursday morning. This style of electric lamp is something new in electrical lighting and is the first of the kind to be received on this coast. They are similar to the old style tungsten lamp, but different from them in that they can be burned at any angle and can be roughtly [sic] treated without the wire in the lamp breaking. They give a fine white light. Those who have seen them consider them to be the finest electric light yet put on the market. Mr. Jacobs beat all the other electrical houses on the coast in getting this lamp in stock. He is in position to get what is best in electrical supplies before most anybody else on the coast.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 2, 1911

H. W. Jacobs, the local electrician, received a shipment of fourteen cases of the celebrated Edison Mazda electric lamps on Friday morning. The shipment contains 1200 lamps, and the candlepower represented by the shipment is all the way from 8 to 500 candle power. With the lamps a shipment of 35,000 feet of wire for use in electrical work was received. Mr. Jacobs claims these are the largest shipments of electrical lamps and wire that have ever come to the City of Roses. He finds a big demand for these celebrated lamps and is doing much work in installing electric wires and fixtures.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 5, 1911

Plunged City in Darkness for Short Time

The burning out of one of the mammoth transformers at the sub-station of the Santa Rosa division of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company plant on Monday evening plunged the city in total darkness for a time. The lights went out suddenly and there was a search for lamps and candles in the residences and business houses that are not supplied with gas. The lack of light came near delaying the meeting scheduled to be address by Governor Hiram Johnson at the pavilion.

Fortunately there are a few gas lights in the mammoth pavilion and with these shedding dim rays the meeting was begun. Before the main speakers of the evening had begun their addresses the lights were again turned on and one of the speakers said it was particularly appropriate for the occasion that the lights should come on and lead the people out of the darkness, as that was the object of the meeting, to give additional and better light to the people that they might better govern themselves, instead of being governed.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 3, 1911
Manager Maitland G. Hall of Gas & Electric Co. Having Voltage Tesed and New Globes Installed

Manager Maitland G. Hall of the Santa Rosa branch of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company has a force of men out making an inspection of the electric system and testing the current in residences to see that everything is working as it should be.

It has been found that many complaints relative to weak current are due to no fault of the company, but entirely neglect on the part of the patrons of the company. “No good housewife,” said Mr. Hall yesterday, “would think of doing her morning work if she used coal oil lamps without refilling the lamp and cleaning it and the chimney thoroughly. But the same good housewife will put an electric globe into service and never think of it again until it breaks.

“Electric globes are not supposed to burn over 500 hours. They do burn in most homes for 1,000 hours or more. They fail to give satisfactory light and the company is blamed. They us [sic] more current and less results are obtained. Now it is to overcome this that we are making a partial installation of new lights free of charge to educate the light-users to the necessity of having globes changed regularly. It will take less current and give better light for less money.”

– Press Democrat, December 4, 1911
Fagan Gives Splendid Talk on Illumination

Much interest has been aroused in this city by the splendid address recently given here by F. D. Fagan, illuminating engineer, at the Columbia theater. Mr. Fagan demonstrated to the people of Santa Rosa the possibilities of securing the maximum of light for the minimum of cost by the use of proper globes. Mr. Fagan took a two candle-power electric light and with the use of proper globes as shades he secured a far better light than was given by a thirty-two candle power lamp which was used in comparison for the purposes of the demonstration.

The speaker contended that one light could be used twelve hours per night or twelve lights an average of one hour each evening, and the lighting bill should not exceed $1.50 for the month. From this it is apparent many residents of the city must change their shades and globes if they wish to secure the best results for a small outlay. The demonstrations wer particularly interesting to business men, who were shown the best methods of displaying goods beneath electric globes. Residential lighting was also given an explanation.

The pictures shown on the screen gave an insight to the making of the electric lamps, and showed in detail every portion of their manufacture. The first plant of Edison was depicted, as was the later plants of the wizard of electricity, and the tremendous output of the factory, together with others, was stated. The annual manufacture of electric lamps seems almost incredible. The address of Fagan and the pictures shown were highly interesting and entertaining.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 3, 1911

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