The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
Every historian writing for a popular audience, if they are the least bit human, loves to include bits colorful detail to reward readers for making it through the often tedious and overwhelming accumulation of facts needed to bring a full, cohesive narrative to life. I call these "elbow moments:" the times when you look up from your book, elbow the person next to you and say, "hey, listen to this." I love to encounter them when I'm reading and I look for as many of them as possible to add to chapters when I write. To be honest, this whole site is a collection of almost nothing but elbow moments that won't fit well in the finished book I intend to write about the past future.
The dirty little secret behind elbow moments is that all too often they have been passed down from author to author untouched and unexamined as secondary sources, without double-checking the original, often impossible to re-find source. Even worse are those not-all-that-rare instances when the original is unknowingly not the primary source, itself being copied uncredited from an earlier publication, something endemic to 19th century magazines and newspapers. The best researchers can easily be tripped up by such a false first.
Here's an example, containing a load of mischief which has been passed down from book to book and now spread across the Internet.
In 1884, the Electric Girl Lighting Company offered to supply "illuminated girls" for indoor occasions. Young women hired to perform the duties of hostesses and serving girls while decked out in filament lamps were advertised to prospective customers as "girls of fifty-candle power each in quantities to suit householders." The women were fed and clothed by the company, and customers were "permitted to select at the company's warehouse whatever style of girl may please their fancy."
Wow. What a statement about the rich using electricity, then a luxury and status product available to a tiny percentage of the population, in a way that degraded servants even more than their usual lowly status. In crudest terms, they were rented as human candelabra, prostitutes of light. It creates a picture of electricity infiltrating society that is totally at odds with the normal textbook history of a utilitarian and egalitarian spread, shining on all classes in the public streets.
The quote comes "Dazzling the Multitude: Imagining the Electric Light as a Communications Medium," by Carolyn Marvin, in a book of essays edited by Joseph J. Corn, Imaging Tomorrow: History, Technology and the American Future (The MIT Press, 1986). That essay was part of a fuller treatment of the subject in Marvin's When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1988), where the passage was reprinted verbatim. Marvin and Corn were pioneering academics in the study of technology; both books are essential parts of a library on the subject. Marvin's bio page in fact boasts, "In 2010 this book was named the best book on technology ever written in the Atlantic Tech Canon’s first-ever survey of the 50 best books on technology."
As befits an academic study, there is a dutiful footnote, announcing that its source was Electrical World, May 10, 1884, p151. And of course that's checkable and accurate.
The Use of Illuminated Girls
Both in this country and in Europe, the adornment of ballet girls with the electric light has added remarkably to the brilliance and attractiveness of their performances. According to Mr. Aldin, of the New York Times, the idea has been carried out to an extent hardly expected even by Mr. Edison. He says:
"The formation of the Electric Girl Lighting Company is an event second in importance only to the invention of electric lights. This company proposes to supply girls of fifty-candle power each in quantities to suit householders. The girls are to be fed and clothed by the company, and customers will, of course, be permitted to select at the company's warehouse whatever style of girl suits their fancy. A very beautiful design for a front-hall girl is now on exhibition at the company's office, No. 409 Gold street. The present system of lighting the front hall of a dwelling-house has the disadvantages that the light – whether it be a gas light or an electric light – must be kept burning all the evening and that a servant must be employed to answer the bell. Then there is a double expense – the cost of the light and the cost of the servant. The Electric Girl Lighting Company will furnish a beautiful girl of fifty or a hundred candle-power, who will be on duty from dusk until midnight – or as much later as may be desired." The electric lighting girl is also recommended as being superior in beauty and convenience to massive chandeliers and students' lamps.
So what could possibly be wrong here? Well, just that searching newspapers and magazines today is about eleven million percent easier than in the 1980s. What Marvin didn't know was that the paragraph in Electrical World was a condensed version of an article that appears to have been first published on page four in the New York Times for April 26, 1884. (At least I can find no other reference to anything about the Electric Girl Lighting Company earlier, and all subsequent contemporary mentions are either the complete article reprinted or shortenings of it. Reprints kept appearing for months, at least until July 19, when it appeared in the Sacramento Record Union.) Reading the entire article changes my entire perception of it. See for yourselves.
The introduction of illuminated ballet-girls has greatly added to the attractions of the spectacular stage. Girls with electric lights on their foreheads and batteries concealed in the recesses of their clothing first made their appearance a year ago. But as yet the use of illuminated girls has not spread beyond the stage. There is, however a great future awaiting the grand idea of incandescent girls, and there is reason to believe that in a very short time private houses will be lighted by girls instead of stationary electric lights.
The formation of the Electric Girl Lighting Company is an event second in importance only to the invention of electric lights. This company proposes to supply girls of fifty-candle power each in quantities to suit householders. The girls are to be fed and clothed by the company, and customers will, of course, be permitted to select at the company’s warehouse whatever style of girl may please their fancy.
A very beautiful design for a front-hall girl is now on exhibition at the company’s office, No. 409 Gold-street. The present system of lighting the front hall of a dwelling-house has the disadvantage that the light – whether it be a gas light or an electric light – must be kept burning all the evening, and that a servant must be employed to answer the bell. Thus there is a double expense – the cost of the light and the cost of the servant. The Electric Girl Lighting Company will furnish a beautiful girl of fifty or a hundred candle power, who will be on duty from dusk until midnight – or as much later as may be desired. The girl will remain seated in the hall until some one rings the front-door bell. She will then turn on her electric light, open the door, admit the visitor and light him into the reception room. One girl thus performs the duties of lighting the front hall and answering the bell, and her annual cost is much less than that of a servant and a gas light. If, however, any householder should desire to keep the electric girl constantly burning and to employ another servant to answer the bell, there can be no doubt that the electric girl, posing in a picturesque attitude, will add much to the decoration of the house.
Under the present system electric lamps or gas burners are fixtures and cannot be moved from place to place. The electric girls, on the contrary, are movable. One girl can be made to give as much light as a large-sized drawing room chandelier, and she can be moved from one room to another, leading the way to supper, for example, and placed wherever she can do the most good. There can be no comparison between a beautifully designed and chastely executed electric girl and a massive chandelier that constantly threatens to fall on somebody’s head; and every householder of aesthetic instincts will be glad to exchange his chandeliers for girls.
An inexpensive electric girl of one or two candle power will be of great use when a person desires to go from one room to another in a dark house. Instead of having to carry a candle in his hand and incur the risk of dropping it or of having it blown out by a draught of air, the happy possessor of an electric girl can turn her on and send her before him to light the way. The student who is now troubled by the flicker of his gas light, or his inability to move the electric light from one part of his desk to another, can be made perfectly happy by an electric girl with a ground-glass shade, who will take any position that the student may desire in order to throw light on his book or paper. No one who becomes accustomed to such a girl will think of returning to old-fashioned methods of lighting.
The new company propose to furnish the new light at a little less than the charges made by the Edison and Brush companies, and promise that in a short time their light will be decidedly cheaper than gas. Their plant already comprises 2,500 girls, and both electric boys and footmen will be at the command of the public as soon as certain experiments as to the possibility of enabling electric boys to give a steady light are completed.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries suffered from their own version of Poe's Law. The average reader of a technological claim had no easy way to determine whether it was legitimate, an overstated possibility, a real thing that might someday come true given reasonable advances, or a deliberate satire or spoof. Reading the entire original article decides me. It's a spoof.
Although Electrical World credits the article to a "Mr. Aldin," it is in fact unsigned. A search of the Times' database finds no other mention of a Mr. Aldin who could be a reporter. Not that that matters: the article clearly was not reported: there are no quotes and no names mentioned. In short, it is a reprinted press release. We think today that reprinting press releases as news is an occasional sign of lazy modern practice or of complicity with corporations who are sought to be advertisers. Wrong. Large amounts of the space in newspapers are taken up by press releases, reprinted in whole, cut for space, or lightly touched up to make them appear as "real" news, and have been for the entire period mass newspapers have existed in this country. Doing so was far easier to get away with in 1884; virtually all newspaper articles were anonymous. Every single one in that April 26, 1884 issue (only eight pages in total) went without a byline. The style of reporting was also different. The who-what-where-when lead was almost as rare. Most articles told the reader what had happened in an impersonal, omniscient voice.
I may be reading into it, but I find that voice absent from this article. The line, "The formation of the Electric Girl Lighting Company is an event second in importance only to the invention of electric lights." is a dead giveaway. No reporter would be permitted to insert his opinion that way, nor would any editor dare. Only a press release, a disseminator of hyperbole, had that freedom baked into its existence. No reporter would be allowed to come back from a story without getting a name to attach to it, either. He (there were few if any shes working as beat reporters for the Times in 1884) would be asked for the name of the President or some other equally important personage and be told to go back and get it if that detail failed to make it into his notebook. The lack of any names more than marks this as an outside job; it is downright weird in an era when the names of those running a business were of critical importance because they were putting their personal reputations at risk.
Not that I'd want to have my name associated with this business. The business plan is insane. It calls for an Electric Girl to sit in a dark hall for hours on end, waiting for the doorbell to ring, answering the door and accompanying the guest through the dark passage into an adjoining room, and then sitting back down to wait for the next visitor. And that's all. Somehow this is supposed to be easier and more sensible than having your own personal servant flicking a switch on and off. Additionally, although this comes across as outrageously conspicuous consumption on a scale that would appall Thorstein Veblen, it is being billed as a cost-saving measure. The Electric Girl Lighting Company claims that it can make a profit by charging less than whatever small amount you might pay that servant plus the cost of a gas light and still feed and clothe and pay its employees, not to mention run its vast warehouse of beautiful women waiting to be hired. And all that doesn’t take into account the cost of the bulbs themselves and the batteries needed to run them, both of which were still finicky, with short lives and frequent repair and upkeep. (How bright is fifty candle power? There's no good way to convert the unit into today's terms, but thinking of it as equivalent to a fifty-watt incandescent bulb is probably not far off.)
The clincher, for me, is the last paragraph. We're used to giant concerns and an employee count of 2500 is a medium-sized business. That was not true in 1884. Only a handful of the largest employers in the country had that many on their payrolls. Never mind the size of that warehouse: where did all these people disappear to in history? This article and its reprints are the only mention of the Electric Girl Lighting Company anywhere, at any time. If it were an already going concern, why did no other paper feature it? Why are there no records of anyone being an Electric Girl or of hiring one? The rich would certainly have bragged of such a status symbol; some of the girls would have gone on to better things. The one checkable fact in the article also appears to be imaginary: Gold Street is a short and very narrow street in Manhattan's upper Financial District. Today the numbering only goes up to about 100. I don't think there's ever been a building with the address 409 Gold Street. Manhattan's odd numbering system makes the game of inventing plausible but impossible addresses an easy one. Rex Stout put Nero Wolfe's brownstone into the 900 block of West 35th Street because that address would site it in the middle of the Hudson River, safe from having tourists disturbing any real inhabitants.
My conclusion is that the author, possibly a reporter, used a current event to devise a spoof. How it slipped past the editor is hard to say. The editor might even have been complicit. Why other newspapers and magazines reprinted it is harder to understand. The Times certainly had a cachet even then and editors were equally constantly on the lookout for elbow moments, clickbait. Seemingly obvious spoofs get cited by real news organizations regularly today. As a principle, "nothing ever changes" is a rock-solid guidebook to history.
And after all, there were those real-life events to draw upon. "Girls with electric lights on their foreheads and batteries concealed in the recesses of their clothing first made their appearance a year ago." In December of 1883, Theodore Dubois, Professor of Harmony at the Conservatoire in Paris, debuted a ballet, La Farandole. The Spirit of Times, a New York newspaper, wrote:
the great novelty is in the second Act, the scene of which is laid in the amphitheater at Arles. The moon disappears and the scene is in darkness, when each dancer touches a button in her belt, and a ray of electric light flashes from a star that she wears in her hair, and which is connected with a minute pile concealed in her coiffure. The effect is very pretty and the hero Olivier finds this final seduction irresistible.
Scientific American explained the technology behind this device in its March 15, 1884 issue (below); the Times itself had mentioned the ballet on January 2, 1884, but dismissed the lamps, saying “they did not produce all the effect expected of them;” and it was written up in other electrical journals such as The Electrician on January 26, 1884.
"The Skrivanow battery ... is composed of the following elements: - A plate of zinc, and chloride of silver wrapped in parchment paper, constitute the electrodes, and these are placed in an alkaline electrolyte. The whole is encased in gutta percha cells. The size of the battery is 5 centimeteres high, 6 centimetres wide, and 15 millimetres thick. The manner in which these batteries are fitted on the dancer is very ingenious. The cells used are arranged in the buckles of a girdle round the girl's waist, the real fastening being at the back. The wires are led round to the back, and then pass up under the hair to the ring which fits on top of the head and carries the lamp and glass star.
London, not willing to be outshown, imported the lighting director for a revival of Hervé’s operetta Chilpéric, which ran almost simultaneously with the Times article.
Other beauties with concealed electric packs popped up after 1884, and in fact can be found in a London production as early as 1882. Some of them were referred to as "electric girls," but that is merely a generic term. None on stage or off were ever associated with the Electric Girl Lighting Company. The fantastic expense of the lighting effect, £400 for equipment and £4 or £5 a night, would preclude any possible profit on the company’s part.
Beautiful girls would be used to promote electricity and technology in almost every conceivable way since; this one is a filament of the imagination.