This type of cube-shaped light with its metal frame supporting coloured and bevelled glass was typically used in entrance halls of Australian homes in the last two decades of the 19th century.

Although gas was introduced to Sydney in 1841, it was not commonly used for lighting suburban homes until the 1870s. Light from gas was found to be brighter than that from other available sources such as kerosene but also thought to give off a ‘hard, unsympathetic lustre’ according to domestic advice manuals such as Artistic homes: or, how to furnish with taste, a handbook for all housekeepers (Ward, Lock & Co., London, 1880).

Some homeowners were also reluctant to use gas lighting because of its association with garish or ostentatious interiors in theatres and shops, an association that was at odds with late 19th century middle class ideas about the home as a place of quiet repose or elegant refinement. The intensity of light showed the corners of a room not previously exposed, creating challenges for the way in which rooms were furnished.

The imperfect combustion of coal gas presented further problems: fumes from gas lighting reduced air quality for house occupants and could damage or taint soft furnishings, wallpapers and gilt surfaces like picture frames. Blackened ceilings were also a common complaint requiring the addition of bell-shaped smoke ‘consumers’ designed to capture the fumes. The introduction in 1885 of the Welsbach burner for gas lighting reduced offensive fumes and made gas lighting more acceptable, just as it was about to be superseded by electric lighting

Electricity was introduced to Sydney in stages from the 1890s onwards but gas lighting could still be found in many Sydney suburban homes until at least the 1930s. Some householders found the new electric light too harsh.

About the Author

Portrait of man in dark shirt against sandstone wall.
Michael Lech
Michael Lech is curator of the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSL&RC) and online collections at Sydney Living Museums.