Monday, October 01, 2012

Hearthstone Historic House Museum

 Sept. 5, 2012

The Hearthstone Historic House Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin, was once a well-designed, well-appointed late Victorian mansion, but that's not its signal distinction. Back in the early 1880s, one Henry James Rogers, manager of the Appleton Pulp and Paper Mill, had the house built in a bluff overlooking the Fox River and across from the paper mill that he managed. He was also overseeing the mills' electrification in the summer of '82, just as his new house was being built, so naturally he wanted electricity for the house too.

According to the Wisconsin Historic Society: "The first electricity offered for public sale flowed through wires in Appleton, Wisconsin, to light the paper mills and homes of that Fox River city. Henry J. Rogers... supplied the world's first commercial electrical power in the summer of 1882, in downtown Appleton -- before it was available in Boston, New York, Washington, or Chicago." Electric wires at Hearthstone ran through the pipes meant to carry gas for lighting.

There's a charming sign in the front parlor of the house that says: "This Room is Equipped With Edison Electric Light. Do not attempt to light with match. Simply turn key on wall by the door. The use of Electricity for lighting is in no way harmful to health, nor does it affect the soundness of sleep."

Of course, they were merely assuming that electric light wasn't harmful to health, but we can give them that. As for affecting the soundness of sleep, I think we can all report that electric light has affected our sleep at some point, especially when switched on unexpectedly. That's hindsight anyway. Apparently people came specifically to see the light bulbs in action when the house was new, since it was a marvel of the age.

Our guide said that the voltage was low -- good thing, since at first the current essentially traveled through uninsulated copper wire -- and so the lights would look dim to modern eyes. But for all I know, the new lights might have been every bit as illuminating as gas lights or kerosene lamps or candles were. Just how bright non-electric lights were is one of those familiarities of daily life lost to time and improved technologies, I think. Not even a highly accurate dramatization of the period could probably convey what it would be like to live day-to-day with pre-electric technologies as your source of light. (Though I suspect the damn things would be inconsistent.)

This is what one of the aforementioned "keys on the wall" looks like, because the Hearthstone Historic House Museum still has all of the ones that Edison's men came to town to install.

Our guide told us that they still work. But he didn't demonstrate, probably for good reason. Touch them too often and they might break, always a risk with tech, high or low. If they break, none of Edison's men are around any more to fix them.

The power was incredibly expensive at first. I forget the exact numbers, but in true Gilded Age style, Rogers spent more to light each of his bulbs every year than he would have paid one of his workers for the year, or some such. Unsurprisingly, Rogers died deep in debt in the late 1890s, though probably electricity was only one of his extravagances, and the Panic of 1893 compounded his losses. In any case, his heirs sold the house and most of the contents, so the museum's furnishings aren't Rogers'. But the modern curators have done a good job at finding 1880s period pieces, so besides the back story of electrification, the place has some charms as a house museum.

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