Making Meaning and Value for Edison’s Light and Power in the Human World by Charles Bazerman, UC Santa Barbara
Incandescent light is more than a light bulb. It requires complex systems of related technologies—switches, circuit breakers, meters, and power lines; transformers, power stations, and generators. It also requires multiple systems of human cooperation, action and meaning–power companies, government regulators, consumers, manufacturers of equipment, bill collectors, accountants, rate payers, electric sign designers and people reading by lamps into the night. The material technological systems won’t go until people make them go–that is until people attribute meaning and value to the technology, frame actions that incorporate the technology, and communicate to maintain the operations of the technology. With meaning and communication we are in the world of symbols. Electric light must be part of language to be part of our living rooms. And it must be part of many languages—journalistic, technical, corporate, financial, legal, judicial, governmental, and consumerist–maintaining its full place in each if it is stay in our lives. In the Edison papers and other archives one finds documents from all of these communicative domains. These domains are among the most prominent and powerful in late nineteenth century–laws, finances, politics, journalism, technology, corporations. Edison had to create presence, meaning and value for incandescent light and central power in each of these to build the social network that made his material technology possible.
Of all the early electrical inventors and manufacturers, Thomas Edison seemed particularly aware of the many meanings electrical light had to establish. It was attention to the successful representations of the light in many different communities and networks of communication, as much as his technical accomplishments, that led to Edison having a dominating role in the early electrical industry. He had to create valued stable meanings within each communication realm in each social network that would grant incandescent light and central power the necessary status to be accepted, supported, approved of, employed, or otherwise actively a part of each system brought together over communication.
The first and most immediate representations are those of the laboratory, appearing in the notebooks, notes, and other jottings of Edison and his coworkers for their own use. In the pages of the notebooks imaginative constructs of the inventive team come into being, based on prior material and literate experience. The notebooks also coordinate the thinking and work of the several people working with Edison. And the pages also contain plans for constructing actual physical objects. Notebook sketches serve as first drafts for the formalized representations that become filed with the patent office, and later the notebooks serve as evidence in patent hearings and courts.
But patents are worthless without the capital to develop the technology. The railroads and telegraph had transformed American industry and finance, changing typically small local investments personally managed, into distant financial stakes in large national corporations run by professional managers and built upon technology. Capital markets grew and changed in character, with industrial stocks being a new and risky component of the market during the 1870’s and 1880’s, a period of extreme speculation, heated up by telegraphic ticker technology, and driven by stock manipulators like Jay Gould, who orchestrated trust-building ventures.
It was into this new and overheated financial world that Edison had to insert electrical technology. At first to gain backing for research and development, and later for corporate development. To achieve capitalization, Edison light had to establish itself as the new potentially enormously profitable technology–the new main chance. As such it had to be news in the financial pages of the newspapers.
This new world of corporations and finance was one that Edison was already familiar with through his early career, which had already familiarized him with both the inner network of financiers behind the railroad and telegraphic empires as well as the role of the press and telegraphy. As a result he was able to play both to maintain support. With the insiders he played on trust, stretching almost to the breaking point, and with the broader public he understood the importance of having the right stories appear at the right time and making himself a good interview subject. He so valued having a good press presence that he was willing to pay for it, by giving some of his favorite reporters stock in Edison companies and during the crucial 1881 Paris International Exhibition of Electricity, bribing every one of the key writers and publishers.
And so it was in each domain of communication–whether organizing his growing companies or holding the public and financiers at bay during a year and a half when he nothing to show. Whether trying to maintain credibility in a technical communication system that treated him with suspicion or protecting his control of the technology through a forest of patents which competitors were attempting to flatten in a series of court cases.
From a cultural studies perspective, particularly interesting is the work Edison and his colleagues had to do to bring domestic meaning and value to a technology that was first perceived as industrial. That work was saturated with issues of gender, class, and new urbanization, as is suggested by Edison and his colleagues bringing light into homes wrapped in a bouquet of flowers. Early fixtures were ornate, illustrations of domestic scenes incorporating light were florid and elegant, and promises of domestic lighting were pervasively aesthetic. Even now, a trip to a local K-Mart suggests that this cultural formation endures.
The practical benefits of incandescent electric lighting for industry had early established commercial customers. However incandescent lighting was not obviously compatible with or necessary for domestic life, which had developed patterns of hearth and lamp that would be disrupted by this ubiquitous technological sun. Bathing the house in artificial light would require establishing an aesthetic which was in conformity with acceptable values for family life and ambitions.
This aesthetic of electric lighting was actively constructed by Edison companies and other members of the early incandescent industry in order to make electric light attractive to the domestic market. This aesthetic spoke to aspirations of the changing, newly urbanized, and increasingly prosperous American family. It spoke to a market highly inflected by gender and class perceptions and roles. And it helped give cultural shape to a changing family life, formerly gathered in shared production in the day and around the hearth at night–but soon to be dispersed in careers, shops, and leisure activities during day and night and when gathered home dispersed to separate corners and separate rooms. Electric Lighting became attached to new family values of consumption, cultivation, and upward class affiliation. As such it was intertwined with other aspects of late 19th century American life, such as advertising, life-style journalism, the department store, domestic furnishing, and urban residential architecture.
The 1883 Catalogue of. Bergmann & Co makes visible how thoroughly early incandescent lighting was wrapped in florid ornamentation. Even the plain electroliers and bracket fixtures presented on the first two pages configure the shades and lights as abstracted flowers with illuminated hubs projected forth, and the supporting tubing has the sinuous bend of vine and branch. Starting with the third page of illustrations the floral motif becomes more concrete, as the shades become ribbed and fluted like morning glory petals, and two pages later wrought iron and pressed metal vine and flower decorations begin to bedeck the fixtures. Over the next twenty pages the designs become increasingly ornamental, with floral and plant motifs occasionally mixed with neo-classical vase and column figures. By page 24, a vase overflows with glass flowers, with incandescent stamens. Majestically ornate chandeliers follow all with floral designs–some formal, but some with the random abundance of an English Garden. A few pages later, the glass shades described as “colored glass flowers” and “etched globes” all embody floral designs.
Sigmund Bergmann, a long time employee and then supplier for Edison, was one of the earliest and most influential manufacturers of fixtures. The Electrical World of December 22 1883 featured Bergmann & Company as “A Representative American Electrical Manufactory.” While much of the article’s text was devoted to a mechanical description of their products, power system, and manufacturing processes, a large illustration and nine more figures of equipment, almost all of floral design lighting fixtures, focused on the aesthetics of lighting. Most of these illustrations were taken directly from the company catalogue.
In the large illustration of the company’s showroom, the most visible clients are two couples. In the center is what appears to be a husband talking to his wife, probably about the fixtures they are viewing, and another husband is pointing out a fixture with his cane to his wife. The role of appealing to women becomes extremely important in domestic lighting, as appears nowhere else in the early story of incandescent enterprises, which takes place very much in a man’s world.
Eventually consumption decisions for lighting fixtures were to become predominantly the woman homemaker’s choice, being subsumed entirely into the role of middle class women as ornaments of fashion and creators of domestic elegance. However, during the early days of incandescent lighting the consumption decision involved major utility choice and minor construction. Since the earliest central stations were in business and industrial districts, domestic electric lighting involved setting up a small isolated plant, with motor and generator. The decision to include wiring in new apartments was a major architectural construction decision, with an eye towards marketing. All of these, were in the world of the times, clearly men’s decisions made in the man’s world. Yet all these consumption decisions needed to be made, as the men were aware with the consent and approval of women who were given aesthetic and life-style charge of the domestic space. Handing over aesthetic control to women for the production of an elegant home and elegant accouterments to life were precisely within the ambitions of the male heads of middle and upper class urban households. They wanted elegant and leisured wives presiding over elegant refuges from the world of commerce.
This male construction of the female explains the curious allocation of content in this and other articles about the aesthetics of lighting appearing in the male industrial journal Electrical World. Most of the article on the Bergmann and Co as “A Representative American Electrical Manufacturer” was technical, describing the construction of the product, the factory floor, and the assembly process. While aesthetics are mentioned several times mentioned in passing as a business necessity, the actual discussion of the aesthetics of the fixtures, is brief and grandiose:
Polished metals, brilliant lacquers, outlining the framework of each fixture, glass globes, pendants, and ornaments of every conceivable shape and every possible color, and, withal brilliant flowers, all combined to surpass the rich munificence of the grandest pageantry and to remind us of a peep at fairy land. (276) Dec 22, 1883
Then the article returns to the technical description. Nonetheless, this article is richly illustrated with the ornamental fixtures and of men accompanying women at the store display. Men may not be interested or able to talk aesthetics, but they can recognize pictures and associate it with women. They might even bring illustrations home to share with the family, as in the nearly wordless Bergmann catalogue.
Just a month earlier, in the November 24th issue, the connection between flowers, lighting and female aesthetics is made explicitly in a brief note, unusually poetic in this industrial journal:
POETRY OF THE ELECTRIC LIGHT. A Lady, writing to a Western journal of the recent exposition at Louisville, gives the following glowing description of the scene at night: “… All through the park the Brush lights glow like great animated lilies in the air. As the water-lily sways on the stream and is hidden sometimes by the swelling waves, so the current of air seems to bend and break over this great bed of electric flowers.” (210)
A month before that, the aesthetic reasoning behind the design of lighting fixtures was made even more explicit in an October 13, 1883 interview with Edgar Johnson, Vice president of Edison Electric Light Co.
At first the desire was to attract the popular fancy by means of elaborate and ornate designs. There, you see, is a specimen from our European exhibition, a flower-pot overgrown with a wilderness of foliage all done in polished brass. The lights spring from among leaves like flowers from their stems. While such forms were well enough for an occasional public exhibition, they were found to be unsuited to any other purpose. Men of wealth who wished to have the electric light in their houses wanted the supports to unite elegance and simplicity. The highly ornate plans of the English workers in brass had to be thrown aside. But the idea of treating the glowing bulb as the stamen, which was the first to occur to us, has, however, been retained through all the changes that were made to meet the requirements of popular taste. It was Mrs. Edison who suggested these floral forms as the best adapted to our purpose.
This statement reveals several underlying cultural themes to which the floral design appealed. Domestic lighting was to appeal to the man of wealth. Lights were clearly marketed as an aspect of the affluent life. And at this point it was treated as a male decision. But the affluent male was not simply practical–he wanted elegance with his simplicity. But elegance was portrayed as provided by the feminine. This is the one time that Mrs. Edison (Mary, his first wife, who was to die of illness the next summer) is ever mentioned in any of the Edison business stories. The floral design is presented as the woman’s touch. While we may not want to make too much of the sexual imagery of the stamen among the petals, it is certainly no stretch to see the female floral as softening the harshness of the light technology when it is brought into the domestic nest, where the true beauty of the light may literally flower. After all Johnson in the same interview notes “Our aesthetic tendency did not receive much encouragement in the demand for electric lights in the factories. Utility and simplicity was the rule of those places…. But the beauties of the light itself are not quickly exhausted….” There is one final theme underlying this discussion, that of European taste, aesthetics and craftsmanship. This theme of America matching European standards of taste framed the article two months later about Bergmann and Company. That article begins:
In our leading article of September 8 ult., in which we studied the relations of “The Incandescent Light and Decorative Art,” as exemplified at the Munich Electrical Exposition, we promised to show to our readers that American products in this line are quite the equal to those of European art. To enable us to fulfill our promise, we paid a visit some time ago to the establishment of Messrs. Bergmann & Co….
That September 8 article makes the explicit link between aesthetics and the domestic market for lighting. It opens:
It was not enough for the incandescent light to have achieved the distinction of being practical. In order to supersede its rival and obtain a foothold in public buildings or private residences, it was obliged to accommodate itself to the requirements of decorative art.”
The article describes the Munich exhibition moving beyond the demonstrating the practicality of incandescent lighting to portraying the ornamental side. Munich is said to be a center of art, “the Florence of Germany” with great museums to inspire artisans. The article ends
It must not be believed, however, that because we lack the advantages which Europe possesses in having able artists and skilled artisans in large numbers, we are unable to use the incandescent light to good advantage for producing tasty and brilliant effects.
This article thus had begun a four-month period, where every month an article highlighted the aesthetics of incandescent lighting.
Even earlier Edison and the electrical world had shown some concern for the aesthetics of lighting, trying to make a link between European art, incandescent lighting, and an elegant affluent light. At the 1881 Paris exhibition, Edison’s representatives had gone to some expense to have fixtures produced by top craftsmen in order to produce an aesthetic effect, and had vied to light art galleries and opera houses. Illustrations in the Electrical World, often originally from La Lumiere Electrique, regularly placed incandescent light within artistic settings. These illustrations have something of the flavor of the latest Paris fashions for the home–carrying with them the model of civilized affluent modern living.
One widely reproduced illustration encapsulates the sense of European Elegance tied to a new model of a family. Illustrated is the father happily witnessing the elegance prosperity of his dependents, engaged in varied domestic activities made possible by lighting. The mother is reading and watching a child. The older daughter is playing the piano for a suitor. Objects of taste and comfort provide for an affluent life while displaying to others the attainment of class. Incandescent light was now made part of that picture.
The expansion of urban salaried middle class removed the man from the family and the home. That is, men went to work and made money. The value of this work was less in the identity formed within the community or the enterprise one was part of, as that it provided the means to lead an affluent life and assured a class position. The home became the site for enjoyment of the affluence and leisure, particularly through the consumption of the new products and aesthetic objects increasingly available. Moreover, the main way to display the class position, thereby reflexively engendering the trust that one indeed belonged in the positions of trust, was through the visible life style of the family the man could support through his earnings.
It was hardly an accident that the Aesthetic movement in the United States arose at this cultural moment with particular emphasis on the decorative arts. This movement, centered in New York as both the cultural and economic center of the country, and helped distinguish the newly affluent urban elite from the masses of urban poor. Further it permitted the new American elites to claim their place alongside the longer-standing European elites. Lighting fixtures were among the domestic furnishings that were the object of aesthetic attention, and arguably the most famous products of the movement in the form of Tiffany lamps that were first produced in 1899. Louis Tiffany, however, worked with Edison on electric lighting as early as 1885. Cincinnati, one of the secondary centers of the American Aesthetic movement, not coincidentally, was the site an ornate display of floral lighting at the centenary celebration of 1888.
As Alan Trachtenberg in The Incorporation of America, and Gunther Barth inCity People have pointed out, the city became a place of differentiated locales as well as culture. It became important to mark out one’s domestic space as one of those places of elegance and culture, lest it be assimilated into one of the less desirable locales that the city was proliferating, such as the tenement. The department store was another of those differentiated locales of elite urban feminized domestic consumerism. Like the Aesthetic movement it was a product of the 1870’s and 1880’s. The same journals that set the tone for the aesthetic movement and developments in lighting, such as Scribner’s also carried news of department stores. These same department stores were among the leaders in interior electric lighting, with Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia installing arc lighting in 1878 and switching to incandescent lighting at its early availability. Other department stores early illuminated by Edison light included Arnold Constable and Sterns in New York, Marshall field in Chicago, and Jordan Marsh in Boston.
Thorstein Veblen in the Theory of the Leisure Class examined just this emergent urban consumer culture. In particular, he pointed out how the home became the site of conspicuous leisure and the women became the ornamental property assigned the task of displaying the conspicuous leisure in themselves and in the domestic sphere. The men of course were too busy within the world of work to themselves expend the leisure nor to carry out the leisured occupation of consuming conspicuously. Thus the elegant woman, as the ultimate property and extension of the prosperous male, became the vehicle of affluence, leisure and distinction. Moreover, as Veblen points out, it is particularly important to display that one is engaged in leisured, non-industrial activities when one is out of public sight, so that the leisured, elegant home becomes a potent class symbol.
Thus it was very useful to attach incandescent lighting to the most desirable consuming lifestyle. Once an item of consumption became valued by a society’s most prestigious members, it would also become a site of emulation for the aspiring classes. J.P. Morgan’s installation of an isolated plant at the renovation of his home at 219 Madison Avenue in 1882 was well publicized. After some early problems, including a fire which ruined new wall paper, it inspired several other members of his class, D. O. Mills and Whitelaw Reid to have their houses wired. He then became instrumental in getting a central station uptown to service his and the other mansions. These were the very homes in which the aesthetic movement thrived. Further, in 1887, the Electrical World ran a feature story about the elegant light installation at the home of Edgar Johnson, the same Edison vice-president who originally engineered the aesthetics of incandescence. Some of the fixtures in Johnson’s home were in fact designed by Tiffany:
The main hallway is finished in quartered oak. The ceiling is composed of eight groined arches, each capped with a miniature sun made by Tiffany & Co. Behind these are Edison lamps, which, reflecting through the different thicknesses of glass, give the well-known outline of the man in the sun.
In conjunction with a few very high prestige installations which created the association between electric lighting and affluent elegance, hotels and apartment houses helped establish the domestic value of incandescent lighting. Hotels and apartments provided the trappings of affluent life to those transient in the city or those who could not quite afford the expense of their own mansions, but who still aspired to the life of urban affluence. In New York the publicized installations as of 1885 included the most prominent apartments built in the period: the Dakota, the Osborne, the Barrington, Franke apartments and the Steinhard apartments. Hotels that were early sites included the Buckingham, the Murray Hill, the two Everett Hotels, and the New York Athletic Club. An entire 28 page Bulletin for Agents of the Isolated System, dated July 25, 1885 was devoted to hotel and apartment installations. It pointed out that “the popularity of a hotel is dependent, not only on the elegance of its appointments… but also on the appearance of brilliancy it portrays.” Many of the installations are illustrated and described, including an extensive description of the newest and highest prestige apartment house in New York, the Dakota, that (with the surrounding private houses) was being wired for ten thousand lights, by far the largest residential installation of the time.
Electric lighting thus early became one of those elegant appointments that made it appear that apartment living could be stylish, appropriate to those of the aspiring classes. Indeed a 1913 commemorative volume produced by the New York Edison company, Thirty Years of New York, 1882-1912, devoted an entire chapter to the association between central light and power and the growth of apartment living in New York City.
While there had been a long history of flats in European cities, apartment life did not come to American cities until mid-nineteenth century and did not expand rapidly until the closing decades of the century, just when electric lighting became available. While incandescent lighting made more possible the kind of tenement living New York became notorious for, the very presence of electrically illuminated tenements made it all the more important to distinguish the use of incandescent lighting in middle-class homes and apartments as a form of elegance through ornate fixtures. Ornate fixtures also allowed working class families to express their upwardly mobile ambitions. Lighting could then be perceived as one of the rewards of urban strife, producing upper class elegance rather than the artificial, machine conditions of the bare bulb.
Given the traditional associations of flowers with the leisured garden, feminine beauty, cultured elegance, and domestic charm, it may seem only natural that electric lighting would take on floral hues when entering the home. Yet when we look into the cultural moment of Urban America in the 1880’s with its special drive to create the appearances of beauty, leisure, elegance, culture, and charm as marks of distinction within the new social and economic order and to create a place distinguished from the urban technological financial strife, we can understand why there was such a strong and immediate marriage between the technological marvel and the aesthetic of the cultivated nature. We can see why Johnson, Bergmann, and others of the Edison world were so attracted to flowers and saw that flowers were the way to make the light attractive, meaningful, and valued in the home.
As in all the other discursive domains in which Edison had to establish the light, appropriate representations had to be made of the electric light to establish Light’s presence, meaning and valuable. The light had to be possible. It had to be Edison’s. It had to be patentable. It had to be patented. It had to be economic. It had to be workable. It had to be profitable. It had to produce dividends. It had to be a good investment and a reasonable management task for participant investors. It had to be compatible with comfortable, pleasant living. Representations of light had to turn on a lot of mental switches.
None of these representations, although each made in differing discourse arenas with different generic and rhetorical means, is however isolated from the others. Each new status relies on the previous ones and they all evolve in response to each other. Legal representations in the patent system influence financial, corporate, production, and consumer representations. Even the meaning, value, and application of the patents is sensitive to changing finances, corporate arrangements, production, and consumer interests. Most fundamentally they all rely and interact with the emerging material technology, which must be produced to warrant the various projections and claims. But even that material production must be displayed in persuasive ways so as to symbolize its own success. Technological accomplishments are not only heterogeneous technical achievements, they are heterogeneous rhetorical achievements.