by Ian Thompson Editor
“Electrical” New House, Old Soul – Ep. 5
Welcome back to New House, Old Soul. Today, we’re talking about electrical. Come join me today on New House, Old Soul.
Build the original series hosted by Brent Hall, New House Old Soul, sponsored by Stellar Floors and the Unico system. Thank you.
Really, the first in early electricity is more about lighting than it is about power equipment or home appliances. Really, we’re talking in the 1880s, 1890s, this early era of electricity. Now, interestingly, AC and DC were at odds; it was called The War of the currents. You had Thomas Edison on one side pushing for DC (direct current) power, and you had Westinghouse on the other side pushing for AC (alternating current). These two were fighting each other, suing each other, backstabbing each other, and sending bad reports to the newspapers, claiming that everybody was going to die if you used the other style. There are a few good books about it, like “The Empires of Light,” which I’ve read, and another one called “Current Wars.” It’s interesting because guys whose names we’re familiar with today, like Tesla, worked for George Westinghouse and the AC side, while Thomas Edison and General Electric were on the DC side. They were trying to light the cities, and the problem that DC had was that it couldn’t go very far, but AC was more powerful. However, it was dangerous. There were all these competing things going back and forth. I mean, the first electric chair was part of the current Wars. So, it was a crazy time in the 1880s and 1890s when electricity was evolving because there were other competing methods for lighting things up. There were gaslighting companies working to be the standard for lighting homes. Gaslighting, like you might see in London in the late 19th century. They even had gasoliers, which were lights with a gas valve and a flame shooting out. It might sound crazy today due to the carbon dioxide and fumes, but that’s how they lit houses. There were also dual gasoliers and electrical lighting.
That’s real safe, right? You have both electrical and gas lighting at the same time. There were many different ways that people were thinking about lighting their houses, and the early light bulbs in the 1900s were often very low wattage, maybe 20 watts by today’s standards. Then there were some developments that started brightening up things. Realize, electricity in houses didn’t really take hold until after 1910. If you’re in an old house, the first type of wiring that took place was called knob and tube wiring. Knob and tube were basically two wires, sometimes covered with rubber, sometimes covered with cloth, about six inches apart. When they were drilled through a stud, there was a porcelain tube stuck through the wood, and the wire would run through it. The knob was a porcelain knob that would be nailed down and driven into, and these wires would get pulled across, wrapped around the knob, and then strung out to other parts of the house. It was fairly labor-intensive, and there weren’t many electrical appliances and outlets in those early houses. But there were some. It’s interesting because knob and tube wiring got replaced by Romex, the plastic wiring we use today with two wires and a ground wire. Interestingly, the ground wire didn’t show up until the ’40s or ’50s, so for a long time, it was just the two wires wrapped in plastic. It took over knob and tube because it was easier to install. If you look at an old house and you only see the two-prong outlets, without the grounding cable, it was probably done before 1940.
The number of things we put into houses didn’t start changing significantly until the rise of air conditioning in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. I remember a lot of houses we were going into had 30-amp or 60-amp breaker boxes with screw-in breakers. That lasted until the ’50s or ’60s, and then you started getting the breaker boxes we use today. If you happen to own a Federal Pacific box, you need to get rid of that; they actually cause fires. They were used in the ’50s and ’60s. So, be careful if you have a Federal Pacific breaker box. From 1965 to 1975, there was aluminum wiring because copper got very expensive. These companies came out with aluminum wiring, but aluminum wiring doesn’t handle heat well, so you need to get rid of that as well. So, many of these developments have taken place in the last 40-50 years, becoming standardized in how we build today.
When you’re talking about New House Old Soul, and really talking power and electricity, you’re mainly talking about lighting. That’s the piece that communicates the quality, beauty, and historicity. Lighting has evolved, and just 20 years ago, we would fill a ceiling with a bunch of can lights. Even the ceiling in my house has too many can lights as we look at it today. So, how do we get rid of those things? How do we stop doing things that date themselves? In 20 years, we’ll look back at can lights and wonder what we were thinking.
One of the things that made the Pennsylvania farmhouse successful was that 90% of the lighting in that house was historic lighting. There weren’t many can lights in that house; most of it was decorative historic lighting. So, what does that do? It’s one of those layers that gives a signal to your brain that you’re in a different place and a different time. You can look at moldings and determine their era; lighting is the same way. The colors they use, the globes, the open bulbs, all communicate a story and a historic feeling. Lighting plays a significant role in creating that old soul atmosphere.
Remember that 1928 Stob house we worked on? It was a great period Revival house built in 1928 by a famous architect. It had very original lighting, not a lot of can lights, but the client wanted more lighting. So, we actually installed a small square LED light, about three or four inches square, mudded right into the ceiling. Instead of having a big six-inch ring stuck in your ceiling, this light was much smaller and less obtrusive, blending with the ceiling.
Another thing you’ll notice today is the scale of exterior lights. Modern lamps for the front of a house are enormous compared to the quaint, small exterior lights seen on a historic house from the 1920s. The scale has changed significantly, making it crucial to choose lights that match the era and style of your home.
So, when you’re considering a New House with an Old Soul, ensure it has a narrative, a story, and a sense of time and place. Even if it’s a Colonial Revival house, consider what types of lighting were used during that period. Think about how to bring authenticity and historicity to your home through lighting choices. Let’s explore Thistle Hill, a historic house nearby, to see what lighting looked like in the early 1900s.
Before heading to Thistle Hill, I thought it might be worthwhile to stop by an architectural salvage yard, Old Home Supply, and check out some lighting from that period. We can observe the scale, size, and architectural details of lights from the past, helping us understand how to create an authentic atmosphere in a new house with an old soul.
At Old Home Supply, an architectural salvage yard, we’re looking at lighting. Here’s where you can see the scale of different lights. Look at these exterior lights; they’re really small, especially compared to modern standards where these lights would be massive. Today, the trend is to have giant coach lights at the front of houses. But in the past, the scale was much smaller. Consider using smaller, period-appropriate lights near secondary doors or on the sides of your home.
We can see the architectural influences in these lights as well. They evoke different styles and periods, from European designs to Gothic Revival and more. Lighting can be a powerful way to communicate the era and style of your home.
Sconces are another excellent way to add historical lighting to your home. You can see how different sconces convey a particular period or style. By selecting sconces that match the architecture of your home, you can enhance the overall historic feel.
Chandeliers are also essential in period homes. In the past, they were often the primary light source in a room. Look at these chandeliers with open bulb lights. They showcase the architectural details and plasterwork around the light. This type of detailing communicates a story and adds to the overall historic ambiance.
So, as you’re thinking about a New House with an Old Soul, pay attention to lighting. Lighting can be a crucial element in creating an authentic atmosphere. Choose lighting that matches the scale, style, and period of your home, and you’ll bring your new house to life with an old soul.
Now, before we go upstairs to look at some lights, I wanted to show you what knob and tube wiring looked like. Here’s the wire – it’s basically a hard wire wrapped in asphalt-impregnated cloth. It’s wrapped around a porcelain knob and tube, which helped prevent crimping or breaking due to expansion and contraction. Knob and tube wiring was labor-intensive and wasn’t used much for electrical appliances. But it’s fascinating to see this early wiring method.
So, let’s go upstairs and examine the lights.
As you’re trying to balance this New House with an Old Soul, consider the importance of lighting. Look at this room; it has no can lighting, just two switches, a main chandelier, and two small sconces. You might think this isn’t enough lighting, but there are other ways to illuminate the space. You can add lighting around beams, on top of crown molding, or in coves. LED lighting allows for flexibility and can be used to highlight various areas.
Lamps and under-counter lighting can also provide additional illumination. By using various lighting sources, you can create a well-lit room without the need for a multitude of can lights.
When it comes to exterior lighting, consider the scale of the fixtures. Modern lamps for the front of a house have grown in size, but historic homes often had smaller, more modest exterior lights. Choose lights that match the scale and style of your home to maintain its historic charm.
So, in your pursuit of a New House with an Old Soul, remember that lighting plays a crucial role in creating the right atmosphere. Be creative and consider alternative lighting solutions to avoid filling your ceiling with can lights. By paying attention to scale, style, and historical accuracy, you can achieve the perfect blend of old and new.
So, the last thing is exterior lighting. Notice that on this house, we have these wonderful coach lights here. These are small, modern-day lights. They’re probably about 16 or 18 inches tall. These things can get massive nowadays, and it’s become part of the look to have these oversized coach lights. Don’t get caught up in that fad; it’s a dial you’re playing with to get the right look.
This is architecturally appropriate, part of the story, and in the proper scale and proportion. There’s also a little dome light under this porch’s roof. Now, in today’s standards, code often requires a light by a back door, but this house doesn’t have that. If I were to introduce lighting to this space as part of the New House with an Old Soul, I would consider something very small, like a discreet spot above the door. I might search for a coach light that’s appropriately scaled down from the larger one at the front. It’s essential to maintain sensitivity to architectural accuracy and scale when choosing exterior lighting.
So, when thinking about electricity, remember that many of the changes in electrical systems and lighting have occurred relatively recently. These aren’t 200-year-old developments; they’re 30, 40, or 50 years old. Consider the sensitive and creative ways you can integrate lighting into your new house while maintaining its old soul.
So, hopefully, this helps you understand the importance of lighting and how it can make a significant difference in creating an old soul atmosphere in a new house. Choose lighting that tells a story and matches the era and style of your home. Lighting is a powerful tool for bringing history and character to your new house with an old soul.