Electricity

In 1879 the New York city government hired the Brush Electric Light Company to build a generating station at 25th Street. Electric street lights installed on Broadway between Union Square and Madison Square were first turned on on December 20, 1880.

The Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York was incorporated on December 17, 1880, to develop and install a central generating station. Edison’s system would consist of the large central power plant with its generators (called dynamos); voltage regulating devices; copper wires connecting the plant to other buildings; the wiring, switches, and fixtures in the interiors of those buildings; and the light bulbs themselves. The method of supplying electricity from a central station to illuminate buildings in a surrounding district had already been demonstrated by Edison in London in 1881, and self-contained plants were in place in some of Edison’s buildings and in a few private residences in New York, like that of J. P. Morgan.1

Alice Vanderbilt in her costume as Electric Light at the March 1883 costume ball
Alice Vanderbilt in her costume as Electric Light at the March 1883 costume ball

As could be predicted, electricity caught the attention and interest of the public — most especially the rich, who looked forward to the day when the could light their homes with something more than candles. At the infamous costume ball given by Alva Vanderbilt, her own costume (a Venetian princess) was upstaged by that of her sister-in-law, Alice Claypoole Gwynne (wife of Cornelius Vanderbilt) who came as electric light in a gown that was battery-wired to illuminate itself and the diamonds  sewn into the costume.

Technological advancements that resulted from Edison’s inventions were not popular with everyone. This is an excerpt from a letter to the editor of a Philadelphia paper:

August 1882:

No resident west of Broad Street desires the electric light. Would any one of the editors or owners of the daily paper like one in front of his private dwelling? Would Mayor King or any members of Council be delighted with one in front of his sleeping chamber? There is no city in the world where it would be tolerated in a street occupied almost entirely by private residences as West Chestnut Street is. Do you admire the six red poles in each square?

Derks, Scott. Working Americans, 1880-1999. Volume II the Middle Class. Millerton, NY: Grey House Pub, 2001. Print. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

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