History of Interior Lighting: Getting Plugged In

For most people in the United States, any discussion of interior lighting is in effect a discussion about decorative lighting or at the very least it’s a discussion of lighting design. Of course, that wasn’t always the case.

One hundred years ago, much of the country was still in the dark. In fact, in 1925 – less than 100 years ago – only half the homes in this country had electricity, according to the National Park Service, which runs the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey.

Electrifying the Country

There was no power grid to plug into when Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb back in the 1870s. Edison used generators to power the interior lighting he had installed in very limited locations. Edison might have been a genius when it came to his innovation inventions, but he was a lousy businessman. It was his young assistant, an Englishman with a heavy Cockney accent named Samuel Insull, who provided the business acumen needed to lay the foundation for a profitable system of delivering electricity to American homes.

“On September 4, 1882, Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York opened a power plant on Pearl Street in Manhattan. Six coal-fired dynamos, each weighing 27 tons, made the steam that powered a grid a mile square,” HistoryNet tells us. “Insull had been integral to persuading city officials, sometimes with bribes, to approve the project, which needed to bury 100,000 feet of wire.”

The Pearl Street Station was the beginning of a massive transformation. Soon a tapestry of privately owned municipal utility companies blanketed the country. By the 1920s, the lights were going on in most of the nation’s cities and towns from coast to coast, but American’s rural communities lagged far behind.

“Running wires into the countryside where there might be only a few people per square mile seemed uneconomical for either investors or tax-payers,” the Smithsonian Museum of American History reports. “By 1932 only about 10% of rural America was electrified, and about half of those people had to buy their own country-home power plants. This electrical divide fueled the difference in standards of living between city and farm, hampering rural Americans’ ability to participate in the life of their modernizing country.”

The Smithsonian Museum of American History says, “World War II interrupted the work of the REA [Rural Electrification Administration]. When President Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Bill in September 1944, Roosevelt said, ‘From the point of view of raising the living standards of rural America and providing a more efficient form of farm management, one of the most important projects interrupted by the war is the extension of rural electrification.’”

It wasn’t until the war was over that the electrification of the country was completed. So you see it is only relatively recently that people have developed an interest in decorative lighting. For most of the 20th century, the most important aspect of interior lighting was simply getting the lights turned on!