Gaslights to Generators New York City's Energy History

In 1863, when a tenant at 97 Orchard Street came home from work, he entered a pitch-dark hallway and had to feel his way up the stairs to his apartment. He most likely felt his way with one hand while carrying a bucket of coal for the stove, or a pail of water to wash with, in the other. There was no central lighting in the hallways, and his apartment was lit by candles or oil lamps. There was no running water. To use the toilet, he went out back to the six privies that the building shared with the patrons of the saloon that occupied the street level.

Privy to Improvements

As utility technology advanced, the earliest middle-class family apartments were sometimes distinguished from low-rent tenements by their plumbing arrangements. By the mid-to-late1870s, most middle-class units had "water closets" or toilets, in the individual apartments, while tenements had either backyard privies or shared water closets in the common hallways. It was also more common to find fixed bathtubs in middle class-dwellings, while tenement families relied on washbasins or public bathhouses for personal hygiene.

Between 1890 and 1910, steam heat replaced fireplaces and wood-burning stoves in many - if not most - homes, and electric light made its first residential appearances, heralding the end of the gas-lit era. With the introduction of the mechanical elevator, buildings could go higher, and it became fashionable - rather than troublesome - to live on an upper floor, above the noise and smoke at street level.

Technology also eased many formerly backbreaking household tasks. In the Stuyvesant Apartments, built on East 18th Street in 1869, gas for lighting and running water were provided courtesy of pipes and hoses, leaving servants to use rope-and-pulley dumbwaiters to haul laundry from basement washtubs to the drying area on the roof, or to move trash down and supplies up. In luxury buildings like the Ansonia on Broadway, utilities were delivered via miles of pipes, ductwork, and conduits. The Ansonia's 340 units were equipped with thousands of electrical outlets, steam radiators, and gas and electrical outlets. Pneumatic tubes delivered messages and mail, and the more than 200 employees retained to run the building were more likely to be operating the elevators than hauling coal.

Electricity Comes on the Scene

Since the early 19th century, gas manufactured from coal lit both street lamps and many domestic lamps, replacing the oil that had been used since the earliest English and Dutch settlements. In 1823, the New York Gas Light Company obtained a 30-year exclusive franchise from the city to lay underground gas pipes in the area south of Grand Street. Several other gas companies gained franchises between 1858 and 1878, but the gas industry met with competition from a new source in 1880. In December of that year, the Brush Electric Light Company illuminated its electric arc street lamps along Broadway between 14th and 34th Streets for the first time, earning the stretch of street its enduring nickname; The Great White Way. At about the same time, a group of New York City aldermen were visiting Thomas Alva Edison's lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey to see Edison's generators and the new incandescent lamps he was using to light the streets of that city.


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