Cinema Literature and Energy

Town Gas and Gas Light in 19th-century Literature

Cover of "The Horla" by the French writer Guy de Maupassant
© Le livre de poche

Comment realized by Alain Beltran, Senior Research Fellow, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

The 19th century saw the advent of a new source of energy and lighting produced from the distillation of coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from...: town gas, also known as manufactured gas. This invention provided heatIn the field of statistical thermodynamics today, heat refers to the transfer of the thermal agitation of the particles making up matter... and light, and was an integral feature of an innovative century. Despite this, town gas barely left a physical trace in most countries, aside from an occasional street named after a gasworks, a few gasometers, and some gas streetlights, which were generally converted to electric. Depending on which side of the English Channel you live on, manufactured gas was invented by France’s Philippe Lebon or by the U.K.’s William Murdoch. But this matters little, as every medium-sized and, naturally, major city had gasworks and public distribution networks. For the purposes of this article, let us leave aside the use of manufactured gas in engines and chemistry, and instead focus on lighting. Gas streetlights began cropping up in Paris’ arcades in the early 19th century, with the last models holding out until the 1960s and 1970s. (Rumor has it that one gas streetlight has managed to survive in the nearby suburb of Malakoff.) While artists and writers rarely praised the rather polluting gasworks, they did have a certain appreciation for gas lighting, lamplighters and gas streetlights.

Gasworks: A Mysterious Yet Troubling Universe

Coal gas plants produced gas and many by-products, including cokeCoke is a coal derivative obtained through pyrolysis. It consists of almost pure carbon..., sulfur, ammonia and coal tar. Prior to being delivered to customers, the coal gas was first stored in easily identifiable cylinder-shaped gasometers. Despite gasworks often being located in the outskirts of cities, they are rarely mentioned in literary works. In The Trip of the Horla, Guy de Maupassant offers the following description of the Villette gasworks: “It might have been mistaken for the colossal ruins of an old town inhabited by Cyclops. There were immense dark avenues separating heavy gasometers standing one behind another, like monstrous columns, unequally high and, undoubtedly, in the past the supports of some tremendous, some fearful iron edifice.” A painting by Ernest Delahaye exhibited at the Petit Palais depicts a different gasworks in Paris, that of Courcelles in 1884, teeming with smoke and glowing charcoalCharcoal is carbon produced by the pyrolysis of wood in the absence of oxygen.... Later, in Europe at Love (1925), author Paul Morand evokes “the gasometers of Vanves, these carcasses of coliseums eaten by vultures”.

 

The Gasworks at Courcelles (L’usine à gaz de Courcelles), Ernest Delahaye

The school book Le Tour de la France par deux enfants offers a vignette of a gasworks that is a far cry from their generally negative depiction in paintings. An immense success in France, this work, written in a clearly patriotic tone, taught generations of schoolchildren how to read and introduced them to geography, history, and life sciences. When the book’s two child protagonists arrive in Haute-Marne, they mention Philippe Lebon, the inventor of gas lighting. Enthusiastic about his achievement, Lebon supposedly said to the residents of his village: “I am going back to Paris, and from there, if you wish, I can provide you with heating and lighting produced by gas that will be transported to you through pipelines” (1877 edition). A small picture depicts a gasworks featuring a smoke-filled chimney, heaps of coal, and gasometers, which served to store manufactured gas prior to its distribution to customers.

Cities of Light

Lighting cities had never ceased to be a problem since the Middle Ages. With the emergence of gas lighting, torches, candles and oil lamps were soon relegated to quiet streets before disappearing altogether. This did not, however, happen without a difficult struggle, and gas was met with much resistance before being accepted, as Charles Nodier ironically sums up in the following verses from the foreword to his 1823 essay, “Essai critique sur le gaz hydrogène”:

« Gas, continuing its advancement,

Pours a flood of light

Onto its obscure blasphemers. »

The growth of gas lighting could be likened to an advancement of civilization that, to borrow the poetic expression of one historian, “disenchanted” the night. Some prefects, including Rambuteau, implemented a proactive policy in favor of gas and, by 1847, Paris had just under 9,000 gaslights. To understand his contemporaries’ reactions, one must think of town gas as a symbol of modernity that was particularly noticeable given the abundance of light it brought to cities. It transformed the geography and appearance of cities, starting with Paris. The two young Alsatian companions from Le Tour de la France par deux enfants are amazed by the urban lighting: “Each night 30,000 gaslights are ignited, stores are lit up and bright lanterns adorn every passing carriage”. This almost overly flashy modernity disheartens one of Gustave Flaubert’s protagonists in Bouvard and Pécuchet (set in 1850 but published in 1881): “Pécuchet, on contemplating the gas-burners, groaned over the spreading torrent of luxury.” Indeed, Paris’ glow had intensified and its nickname – the City of Light – was well deserved, although there are many theories about where the expression came from. In addition to the streets and boulevards, department stores made use of gas lighting to attract customers, as eloquently documented in Émile Zola’s novel The Ladies’ Paradise. The omnipresent lights even came to define Paris: “They soon reached the paved street. The carriage went on more quickly; the number of gas-lights vastly increased – it was Paris” (Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education). In L’Assommoir, Zola describes the “interminable vistas of gas-lamps – the black and deserted Infinite of Paris asleep.” The protagonist of Sentimental Education does not want to go back to Paris, but “nevertheless [...] regretted the very smell of the gas” (chapter VI). It was true that coal gas gave off its own particular odor and light: “this yellow gleam had something depressing about it” (Guy de Maupassant, Bel Ami). When the gas was not properly refined, the light could contain dust particles: “The gas had left what appeared to be like a daub of soot on the ceiling” (Zola, L’Assommoir). In Nana, Zola mentions a ceiling “which had turned green in the gaslight”. His contemporaries had gotten used to such flickering light that “diffus[ed] dim rays” across rooms (Zola, L’Assommoir). Around these patches of light flocked life in every form. Flaubert describes the “prostitutes whom [Frederick] brushed past under the gaslight” (Sentimental Education, chapter V). In enclosed spaces like theaters, the heat given off by gas is often mentioned, such as in the following scene from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary depicting Emma Bovary at a play: “The smell of the gas mingled with that of the breaths, the waving of the fans, made the air more suffocating.” Nevertheless, when the gas goes out, a young Marcel Proust in In Search of Lost Time becomes distressed: “It is midnight; some one has turned out the gas; the last servant has gone to bed, and he must lie all night in agony with no one to bring him any help.”

Poets and the City Lights

While, despite frequently citing it, writers had rather mixed feelings toward gas lighting in the end, poets were a very different story, often waxing lyrical about the light of town gas. In the words of Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren in La ville:

“The city seen from a distance is sprawled out, dominating the plains

Like a nocturnal, colossal hope;

It bursts forth with desire, splendor, obsession;

Its light casts beams up into the heavens,

Its myriad gas, a golden forest, stirs up the sky.”

 

In Parisian Sketch, Paul Verlaine shows his appreciation for this new urban companion:

 

“Dreaming of Plato, I walked on,

and of Phidias,

of Salamis and Marathon,

under winking eyes of blue jets of gas.”

 

Georges Rodenbach recognizes how a different type of lighting can show things in a new perspective in La ville est morte.

 

“The canals, like knitted fabric

Whose golden dots of gas are woven along the edge.”

 

The new lighting made it easier to wander around and dream in the city: “Under the gaslight, I stagnate and die” (Charles Cros, Plainte). Charles Baudelaire, generally portrayed as hostile to modernity, described the world of his time as “a gas-lit, totally barbaric” place. And yet his poems frequently describe how the gaslight enhances the woman with whom he is in love:

 

“When I study, in the gaslight which colors it,
 
Your pale forehead, embellished with a morbid charm,
 
Where the torches of evening kindle a dawn,
 
And your eyes alluring as a portrait’s […]”
 
(“The Love of Lies”, Flowers of Evil)

 

In reality, Baudelaire is more adverse to the city than the light it gives off. At the end of the century, the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé was of two minds about the new energy source, believing gas good for the poet who adores theater, but evil in the case of a modern, democratic and satanical light. Generally speaking, poets liked the lively, tumultuous flame of gas lights, as well as its unpredictable, energetic movements that were comparable to the fire of poetry. When electric lighting made its debut at the end of the 19th century, people criticized its blinding whiteness and steadiness, even though it had many health advantages. In addition, when there was no more gas, like during the Siege of Paris by the Prussians in 1870-1871, the city was plunged into darkness, as described in Victor Hugo’s L’Année terrible:

 

“There is no more gas; Paris sleeps under a vast candle snuffer;

At six o’clock in the evening, darkness.”

 

Lamplighters

To light and extinguish the countless gas streetlights, a small army of employees was needed. Known as lamplighters, they were indispensable in cities. Their patrols, their ability to create light, and their long pole and ladder made their silhouette frequently sketched by caricaturists and evoked in novels. Residents awaited their passage and they were undoubtedly a part of neighborhood life. In the American novel The Lamplighter, penned by Maria S. Cummins, a poor young girl rejoices each evening at the sight of the lamplighter arriving with his ladder: “when he so quickly ran up his ladder, lit the lamp, and made the place cheerful, a gleam of joy was shed on a little desolate heart”.

But the most famous lamplighter is probably that of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. On the fifth planet, there’s just enough space to house a single gas streetlight and lamplighter: “When he lights his street lamp, it is as if he brought one more star to life, or one flower.” But because the planet keeps turning faster and faster, the poor worker has to extinguish and relight the streetlight every minute, meaning 1,440 sunsets every 24 hours. Of course, the lamplighter’s job may seem absurd, but the Little Prince likes him a lot and could even have been his friend, as he finds his occupation “beautiful”. A certain amount of nostalgia surrounds this long-gone figure and Belgian author Jules Boulard wrote a memoir entitled L’allumeur de réverbère (“lamplighter” in English). Ultimately, for over a century, gas lighting did more than just light: it illuminated, and, in this respect, literature is a faithful mirror.

To learn more:

 

  • -Essential reading: Jean-Pierre Williot, Naissance d’un service public : le gaz à Paris, Paris, Editions Rive Droite, 1999.
  • -A richly illustrated work: Alain Beltran and Jean-Pierre Williot, Gaz : Du gaz en France à Gaz de France, deux siècles de culture gazière, Paris, Le Cherche-Midi, 2009.
  • -Gaz de France information, No. 345, December 1, 1977 (a feature report entitled “Gaz à toutes les pages” with many quotations on gas, gasmen, streetlights, and more).
  • -Simone Delattre, Les douze heures noires : la nuit à Paris au XIXè siècle, Paris, Albin Michel, 2000.
  • -Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century, translated from German, University of California Press, 1995.
  • -Naturally, all authors cited in this article.

 

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