Wabash, Indiana, was the first American city to be lit by municipal electric lights when they were introduced there in March of 1880. Electric service had been making its way into homes otherwise, however, as had acetylene gas lighting which remained popular from the turn of the century all the way up to the 1950’s (in some rural areas). Gasoline and kerosene were also used for lighting, and not just the quaint oil lamps we think of but entire complex household systems. All of this was a prolonged effort against a problem which plagued people for centuries: what to do for light after the setting of the sun, that is, how to extend light into the night to make evening hours more useful or at least not dangerous.
As Virginia Tech history professor A. Roger Ekirch writes in his fascinating book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, sunset did not just signify the end of the day but the onset of possible peril—from highwaymen robbing you to the possibility of falling into a cellar if its doors were left open. While Prof. Ekirch concerns himself mostly with Europe, the American South faced the same issues and some unique ones as well.
For one, the higher average temperatures of the Southern states meant that nightfall offered at least some welcome relief from unrelenting heat, but rural areas also had to worry about wolves, wildcats, and other beasts that might be lurking unseen in the night. Livestock were brought to shelter or watched over as best as they could be, and for rural families night-time brought an enveloping darkness nearly unimaginable to us today. A moonless or cloudy night could be nearly devoid of any light at all, save whatever candle or kerosene lamps could offer.
Early colonial families had to make do with candles and simple lamps as well as fires in fireplaces for nocturnal light, and as all these light sources were also potential sources of flame and combustion, they were serious business indeed. Many homes, churches, and other structures were of timber-frame construction and burned to the ground at some point, often due to an errant flame inside the building. As a result, stone and brick became favored building materials when available and viable.
Duties around dusk were aplenty in these early times. Animals were rounded up, plans were made for the next day, supper was prepared and served. Shopkeepers had the unenviable task of tallying up sales and accounts with faint light—and without the computers and adding machines of our own times. Later in the night, the house would be locked up against intruders. The old Scottish ballad “Get Up and Bar the Door” illustrates this ordeal and the fact that in colonial and antebellum times it wasn’t a matter of leaving the house unlocked and presuming safety. That placid picture of people never locking their doors in Americana came much later in the twentieth century. Law enforcement in the South was limited to constables in larger cities and towns, local sheriffs at the county level, but overall every family ensured their own safety. Night was also a time of devotion, reading the Bible, and savoring time not given over to chores since so much of the day, by necessity, was.
Cities took into account the night in their planning: Savannah is a perfect example with its unique, pragmatic grid plan. The stately squares of the town offered tranquil respites during the day but could be shrouded in darkness at night. Urban dwellers of cities like Savannah expected that lighting would be better in the city than in the country, and it really had to be to a degree so that crime could be curtailed and accidents between horses, carriages, and pedestrians kept to a minimum. However, the scourge of fire was of course the most sinister of concerns, and even with many homes well-built and some of relatively fire-proof materials, their proximity to one another was cause for great worry—if a fire began in one house, it could easily carry to the entire block.
The threat of fire was not limited to colonial times, either. In May of 1901 in Jacksonville, Florida, workers on their lunch break noticed embers from an industrial chimney set on fire a pile of Spanish moss (used for stuffing mattresses). Before the fire could be completely extinguished, it spread to nearby buildings and led to the Great Fire of 1901, a devastating event in Jacksonville’s history and one of the worst fires in the history of the entire United States.
Every effort to provide illumination at night prior to the advent of electricity also provided the possibility of unintended fire: from simple candles to complex home acetylene gas lighting systems, this was a serious concern. For this reason, the small acetylene plants—collections of devices to gasify the calcium carbide used for the lighting gas—were normally housed in sheds behind the house, not indoors, but some were located in basements.
Regardless, cases of home acetylene plants exploding were thankfully rare, and they became a welcome alternative for lighting for rural residents. Many municipalities, on the other hand, had town gas, or coal gas, piped for the same purposes and so, just as a diminutive home gas plant was necessary for home operations, towns required coal gas plants (which became far more commonplace in Europe than in the United States).
Companies were keen to replace acetylene with the safer, more effective, and versatile electric light, and by the early twentieth century inroads were being made—as seen with the forerunning example of Wabash, Indiana—toward town electric plants. As far as the South is concerned, Thomasville, Georgia, was one of the first cities to establish a municipal electric plant for the town, doing so in 1889.
Rural customers, however, were another issue: it was not economical to bring electric service to many of them, but small generators, such as those made by the Delco Corporation, were an option and became solidly popular. The coming of commercial power to a rural municipality was an exciting event but one also met with some degree of wary skepticism. The men of the community often would meet and discuss the option of obtaining electric service and its cost. While such service was desired by many, the expense was of concern, and electrical service became a community debate in many places: was it a necessary modernization or a foolish luxury?
So much of the South is rural and even more of it was in times past. Many areas lacked the benefits of city life, and lighting was a personal, household responsibility and one never taken lightly, so to speak. For when darkness fell, the world changed—until men could find clever means of bringing illumination into their homes.
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