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article number 446
article date 05-07-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Let There Be Light … Our Gas Light Manufacturing, 1870’s
by Horace Greeley, et al.

From the 1873 book, The Great Industries of the United States.

LAMP — from the Greek word lampein, which signifies “to shine” — is a generic term, which properly includes all sorts of lights and their holders, candlesticks, gas fixtures, and other burners. In close proximity to the axe and the plow, the article of lamps, or holders of the materials from which light is evolved, has place among the artificial necessities of man.

The enjoyment of light in the night season could not be realized practically to any great extent without the means of vessels, or other mechanical devices of some, sort, to contain in place, or convey to the action of heat, the fuels, oils, gases, etc., from which light is drawn.

We have no historic account of any article of utility or ornament of a more remote antiquity than the lamp. Fire-worship would seem, from all we can gather from the meagre intimations of history, to have been one of the earliest, if not the earliest, of cults, sun-worship, perhaps, preceded it, — and probably led to the lamp or candlestick being regarded with something like reverence in the early historic period.

Lamps of varied and beautiful shapes have been found among the ruins of Pompei and Herculaneum. The Museo Borboaico at Naples, is rich in relics of beautiful works, among which are lamps in great numbers, taken from these ruins.

According to the legends of the Chinese, their ancestors far back, thousands of years beyond the dawn of the historic period of the Western nations, must have been familiar with the lamp. But we need not dwell further upon its remote antiquity.

Some of the ancients, we are told, endeavored to make a lamp which should burn perpetually; which should need no replenishing with oil. Strange as must have seemed to their contemporaries, the hallucinations of these ambitious inventors, something akin to the eternal-burner which they sought, is now found in the “gas fixture,” or metal tube of to-day, and its contents of bi-carbureted hydrogen.

Had the gas fixtures of to-day been invented in antique times, we can probably hardly conceive to what power they would have been ascribed, for our modern illuminating gas supposes a deeper acquaintance with science than all the magicians and philosophers of antiquity together possessed.

In St. Peter’s Church at Rome, as well as in many other Roman Catholic cathedrals and churches throughout the world, lamps are kept constantly burning. The custom is supposed to be of early origin, and to have been borrowed from a still earlier one, the object of which was, among the superstitious, to keep off evil spirits, who, it was thought, could only flourish or do harm to man in the dark. But the enlightenment of modern times demonstrates that the most evil spirits among men may walk abroad at noonday, and do their nefarious work in the full light of the sun, to say nothing of gas-light.

The manufacture of gas fixtures is of modern date, and has become one of the most important industries of the day, considering both the utilities it serves and the sense or love of beauty to which it administers. A few years ago the majority of gas fixtures used throughout the world were manufactured in Europe, principally in England and France, and chiefly by small manufacturers.

To-day a single firm or establishment in this country, that of the Messrs. Cornelius and Sons, of Philadelphia, Penn., makes nearly one-half of all the gas fixtures manufactured in the United States, which, together with the unsurpassed, if not wholly unequalled character as well, of their wares, renders them the representative manufacturers in their line.

There are several other manufacturers of gas fixtures in the United States, who make good wares, both as to quality of workmanship and the ornamental character of their designs, but it would be almost impossible, if not quite so, to exercise more care and study in manufacture and ornamental designs than are observed by the Messrs. Cornelius in the manufacture of their goods.


In treating of the great industries of the country, it is a matter of extreme satisfaction to the writer, as interested in both the perfection of a specific ware, and the bearing it has upon the weal of the nation, to be able to find among the manufacturers thereof men whose pride in the accomplishment of perfect work, for sake of the pleasure of making it, seems to be at least equal to their ambition in money-making.

The Messrs. Cornelius would seem to be so circumstanced, that however inclined they might be to slight their work for money-making purposes, they cannot willingly do so on the score of honor. Having a reputation for making perfect wares, upon which their vast establishment has been built up, they have a peculiar pride in sustaining it.

In the writer’s large acquaintance with the modes of manufacture, he knows of no establishment for the production of any ware in which the processes of work are more systematized and nearer perfect than in that of the Messrs. Cornelius’ Gas Fixture Manufactory.

The extent and importance of the manufacture of gas fixtures in this country will be apparent on reflecting that in nearly all the houses of the great cities, and in nearly every village having a population of four or five thousand, they are now in use.

There are a great number of isolated residences in the country, the owners of which manufacture their own gas by private methods, and whose houses require the gas fixtures. The demand for these wares is increasing every day.

In order to acquaint himself with the mode of manufacturing the gas fixtures, the writer recently paid a visit to the establishment of Messrs. Cornelius among others. All the processes pursued in other manufactories, and which are of any worth, are to be found in operation in this establishment, besides many improvements secured by letters patent, and which are not to be found elsewhere.

A description therefore of what is to be seen at this establishment will cover the whole subject for the general reader.

Messrs. Cornelius & Sons’ principal establishment is situated on Cherry Street, in the city of Philadelphia, and is also in business communication with another large establishment of theirs on the corner of Columbia Avenue and Fifth Street, in the same city.

The Cherry Street building is an immense structure, some four hundred feet in length of its facade, and vast wings, and is five stories in height. It is built entirely of brick and iron, is in the form of a hollow square, and fire-proof throughout.

As a building for its purposes it is a model of convenience, and is divided into seine eighteen separate and distinct departments, or work rooms, all well lighted, thoroughly ventilated, and heated by steam. It is, without doubt, one of the most perfectly organized establishments in the United States.

Entering the establishment, the visitor proceeds, perhaps, first to the modelling rooms. The firm have in their employ several designers or artists who occupy separate rooms, in different parts of the building, and who do not intercommunicate, each depending upon his own unaided genius in devising sketches for the models. Thus greater originality of design is accomplished.

Following a design which is given him, sketched upon paper, the modeller proceeds to mould into required shape a mass of prepared wax. After the design is “roughed out,” he consummates his task with the aid of tools made of hard wood or steel.

When the pattern, frequently the work of weeks, is completed, it goes in the hands of the “caster,” who makes a mould of it in brass, which is sent to the “chaser,” and is elaborated into a standard pattern, from which the caster may multiply an infinitude of copies. It is a very nice operation to make a mould from the original wax pattern, the fragile material rendering it necessary to use every precaution in obtaining a brazen facsimile of the original.

Much depends upon the “chaser.” When the first brazen copy of the pattern is placed in his hands, the embellishments on its surface are faint, and require to be deepened. The partially developed fibres and veins of leaves and flowers, the feathers of birds and fur of animals, are by him made distinct.

He uses small steel chisels, of various shapes, with which the necessary indentations are made by sharp blows of a light hammer.

The completed pattern is returned to the caster. In casting a drooping feather or a crumpled vine leaf, for instance, it is found more expeditions to flatten the pattern. After the casting is finished, the proper curves are given to the hitherto flat surfaces by means of wooden mallets and other tools.


In the casting-rooms, where many men are employed, the heat from the furnaces is very great, and becomes almost stifling, in conjunction with the sulphurous fumes of the liquid mass of mingled copper and speltor, forming brass, which is glowing and seething in black-lead crucibles placed in the midst of fiery anthracite.

Each caster works at a wooden trough, into which he carefully sifts prepared sand, slightly moistened. This sand is of a kind peculiarly fitted for moulding, and found in the region of Philadelphia. Thus prepared the sand is placed in flasks, and the process of moulding, sufficiently understood by general readers, is proceeded with.

After the crucibles have been emptied into the moulds, a few minutes suffice for the lately molten brass to chill into a hardness which permits the flasks to be opened, by removing the clamps, when it is a matter of surprise to note how faithfullt the finest chased work has been transferred from the original pattern to the copy.

The castings are conveyed from the foundery to the filing department. Here scores of files create a constant din, not musical to all ears. The castings are first “edged up” with course rasps, and then finished with finer tools.

In many instances a number of castings must be joined to form one piece. The several parts are conveyed to the soldering room, where they are properly fitted together, care being taken to leave one edge more prominent than the other.

The sections are then put into their proper places, and retained in position by iron wire.

Particles of brass solder, which look like brazen saw dust, are wet with water and carefully applied along the projecting edge of the section.

The entire piece is then placed in a furnace, where the solder is melted. The work then undergoes another filing.

The joints must be made with the utmost care, for the subtle gas would escape through any tiny opening left in the work.

Before the castings leave the filing and soldering rooms, there is frequently much to be done in the way of the twisting of branches, crumpling of leaves, drilling of holes etc., etc.

The castings are taken after the re-filing, etc., to the dipping room. Here everything is done by means of chemical agents.

The room is a perfect laboratory in itself. There are ranges of monstrous stone jars filled with divers colored acids, of different degrees of strength; pans and kettles filled with various liquids and hot, lukewarm, and cold water is flowing in abundance.

When the castings leave the hands of the filers they are dirty and discolored, and more or less sand or other foreign matter clings to them. The first act of the dipper is the taking up of a casting with a pair of tongs, and dipping it into a jar of acid.

Only a moment is required to remove by this process every particle of dirt from the surface of the piece. The chemical would soon devour the piece itself if sufficient time were given it. But the dipper speedily takes out the cleansed metal and places it in water, which arrests the ravages of the acid.

This operation of plunging the metal into acid is called “pickling.” The color of the metal is rendered by it essentially brass-like, as the “pickle” has devoured the foreign substances on its surface.

The article thus cleaned is then dipped into a jar, the contents of which are a mystery to us. This has the effect to give the surface a rich sulphur color. This operation occupies but a moment.

The piece of metal is again washed in clean water, and is then plunged into a chemical combination called an “ormol”; in a few minutes the color of the metal is changed to a dirty yellow. The ormolu is then washed off, and the surface of the metal is found to have been eaten into minute molecules.

One more dip into an acid, which gives the brass a rich, pale gold color, finishes the chemical ordeal.

After the piece is again cleansed in water, it presents a rich and uniform, though dull gold color. This dulness forms a good foil, and contrasts finely with the prominent parts of the design, which are afterwards richly burnished, the ormelu having prepared the surface of the metal for that operation.


In an apartment adjoining the dippers is another one in which the coating of the brass which has passed the ormolu process is carried on.

The galvanic battery is here put in use. The piece of brass is put in connection with the battery, and is made to form the negative pole of the instrument. A bar of pure silver acts as the positive pole.

The brass is then held in a solution, and the bar of silver is played around it under the surface for a few seconds, which suffices to precipitate upon the negative pole, or piece, a coat of silver thick enough to bear without injury the action of the burnishing instrument.

Burnishing is an important process in the manufacture of gas fixtures. In the burnishing room of Messrs. Cornelius & Sons, a little army of burnishers is employed. The tools used are of a great variety of shape, and during the process of burnishing are frequently dipped into a dark-colored liquid, which on inquiry we find to be simply small beer.

The parts of the surface of the metal which are not burnished are “dead,” or “matted,” as they come from the ormolu. Much of the beauty and character of the work depends upon a judicious selection of the parts to be burnished. It is, to the proper development of the design, what lights and shades are to a good picture.

The process of lacquering, which is a very important one, is carried on in a room supplied with stoves, which are kept in all seasons constantly heated. Here the various articles are placed upon hot iron after being carefully brushed.

When heated to a certain degree, the articles are taken to a table, where the lacquer is applied with fine, flat brushes. Some articles are dipped into the lacquer, and ‘‘slung” backwards and forwards, in order to make it certain that the lacquer is properly spread over their surfaces.

The lacquer must be scientifically prepared and skilfully applied to insure a rich and lasting gold color, unaffected by the action of the atmosphere.


The different parts and ornaments after undergoing the processes described are ready to be placed in the hands of the fitter or finisher, and are selected and taken to the respective places for putting them together.

One room is occupied entirely by a number of men who are constantly employed in fitting together such gas work as chandeliers, pendants, brackets, etc.

Another room is devoted to the numerous class of solar lamps designed for standing upon the table, or to be suspended from the ceiling or against the wall.

Some of the ornamental work is painted in party-colors, to please fanciful tastes; some is bronzed in different shades, while other work is covered with a coating of fine gold, or tastefully enamelled.

We have now noted the processes by which blocks of spelter and of copper are converted into articles of use and taste. But many of them to which we have alluded are only the branches or outer flourishes of a grand design.

The construction of a chandelier involves much more than we have noted. The main body a chandelier is a hollow shell of metal, technically called a “bowl.” Formerly the making of the bowls was a tedious process. A plate of brass was hammered into shape by hand and often occupied eight or nine hours for the forming of a bowl.

Now, by the improved machinery of Messrs. Cornelius & Sons, one man can turn out several hundred a day. A plate of brass is cut or stamped out in a circular form, a small hole being also cut in its centre.

It is then taken to a turning lathe. A block of wood of the desired shape is fixed firmly in the lathe, and the brass plate is secured at its centre to the block.

The “spinner” then lubricates the surface of the plate, that his tools may work easily.

The lathe is set in motion, and the wooden block, with the brass plate attached, is made to revolve rapidly; and the “spinner,” by means of a smooth iron tool, presses the plate over the wooden mould, until it covers it closely in every part. This forms one half of a “bowl.”

The process is expeditious, but requires both strength and skill in the operator.

After being spun, the bowl then undergoes the processes of turning, filing, fitting, dipping, burnishing, and lacquering, and is ready to form the body or centre of the chandelier, to which the branches, etc., are fastened by means of several vases, and a variety of other articles are spun in the same manner.


There is a vast amount of turning of metals required in the prosecution of this immense business.

The drilling machines, tapping machines, and screw cutters, would of themselves form the interesting subject of a long article. One apartment is devoted to the grinding of keys, or faucets of the gas fixtures. This work requires the utmost care, as an aperture almost imperceptible would occasion a serious leak.

There are other rooms which tin and coppersmiths are engaged at their special branches of business.

The packing rooms of this establishment reveal the vastness of the business; tons of paper being annually used to wrap the goods for transportation.

The “Pattern Room” is a museum of art. It is large and well stocked, kept under lock and key, and watched with jealous care. Here a copy is preserved of every pattern worthy of being retained made by the proprietors since the commencement of their business. The collection is valued at a high rate. The articles could not be replaced.

The gas fixtures of this establishment are to be found in the majority of dwelling-houses lighted by gas throughout the land, and their lamps are everywhere seen, while nearly every capital in the United States, together with most of the large public buildings and churches in the cities, are lighted with chandeliers made by the Messrs. Cornelius.

Their work enjoys no less high reputation for its faithfulness, than for the conscientious manner in which it is constructed throughout. The large corona chandelier for the Columbus Avenue Church, Boston, in Gothic style, gilt relieved with blue arid crimson, with a cross pendant, may be cited as an example of the great beauty in form and finish of their work.


But it is needless to specify the magnificent works of this establishment. The public favor which, in recognition of the great art, skill of the establishment, arid the fair dealings of the high-toned gentlemen who conduct it, has made the establishment the first in importance in the world, is assurance enough that the wares of this house are of the highest character possible to the art.

About five hundred workmen are employed in this vast establishment, and with the splendid improvements in the machinery which they operate, and the perfect arrangements for combination of labor which the establishment possesses, are able to complete annually an amount of work, which, under the processes that obtained a few years ago, it would require an army of thousands of men to perform.

Christian Cornelius, the founder of the house, was born in Amsterdam, Holland. His father was a mathematical instrument maker, and he learned the trade of a silversmith. He came to this country, landing in Philadelphia, about 1800, where he soon acquired a reputation as a very skilful worker in metal.

He soon commenced business upon his own account as a manufacturer of silver plated ware; and having associated with him his son Robert, the present senior partner of the house, the firm, about 1827, added to their specialty the making of lamps and chandeliers.

Robert Cornelius was born in 1809, in Philadelphia, and after passing through the schools of that city, commenced to take part in his father’s business, going practically through every department of it. At the same time he studied chemistry under Dr. Troost, of Nashville University, and drawing, under James Cox, the artist.

The good result of this training was seen in the improvements he suggested in many of the operations of the business, and in the mechanical devices he invented to facilitate many of the processes of manufacture.

In 1831, Robert was admitted to the partnership, under the style Cornelius and Son; and as soon as the use of gas was introduced, the firm began to turn their attention to supplying the necessary appliances for its consumption.

Robert Cornelius had also invented and patented a solar lamp, for burning lard or sperm oil, which was largely used; and besides his attention to the increase and perfection of the processes in his own business, his interest in chemical studies led him to experiment with the daguerreotype, when that new art was first suggested, and he was the first who made use of bromine, by which the time needed for taking a picture was reduced from ten minutes to ten seconds.

He also experimented with, and improved many of the processes of plating, by electric and galvano-electric methods, and applied the “electrophorus,” — an arrangement by which the gas is lighted by electricity, and which is not affected by the weather, and works only with the simplest movement.

The firm at present consists of Robert Cornelius and his three Sons. (Christian, the founder of the house, died in 1851.) The younger members of the firm have received all the advantages of education and careful scientific training which our modern times afford, and then entering the manufactory, have acquired a thorough, practical knowledge of all the mechanical and chemical processes of the business, and thus are fully able to take part in keeping the organization of their enterprise abreast with the new demands of the time, and the growing love of artistic, as well as other merits.

The wisdom of this course is proved by the success which the firm has made, and the universal demand which they have created for their wares.

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