Friday, March 10, 2006

1895 Wiring: And you thought Knob & Tube was old

I found a long lost treasure yesterday so I thought I’d share. When I was removing the 2 story addition to the house the scullery became the dumping ground for trim pieces and other miscellaneous items that I really didn’t know what to do with. I save just about everything related to this house until I’m absolutely, positively sure I’m not going to need it.

The treasure I thought I’d lost is a piece of redwood electrical conduit. That’s right, I said “redwood conduit”! I’m not sure how it ended up in the feculent hell-hole that is the scullery but that’s where I found it. I hadn’t seen this conduit for about 3 years and I was sure I had accidentally thrown it away, so it was a big deal for me yesterday when I found it.

Two wires ran in the grooves

Then the cap was put on

I’m not sure how extensively this was used. I’ve only seen it in one other house in the city. I think it was mainly used to extend a previously installed light, and not so much as in new construction. In the case of my house, when the first partition went in to the kitchen, when Mrs. Petch started running the boarding house, it was used to extend the wires so there could be a light on both sides of the partition. They would tie into an existing ceiling fixture and run the conduit along the ceiling to add another fixture. It's sort of an early version of Wiremold.

The conduit is interesting and cool, but that’s not even the old wiring I’m talking about. This conduit would have been installed around 1915. If you recall Mr. Petch first ran The Eureka Gas Co. (coal gas for lighting), then became an electrician, and then in 1898 became the proprietor of The Eureka Lighting Co. When my house was built in 1895 it was wired for electric lights and plumbed for gas lighting. All the downstairs rooms had combination gas/electric ceiling lights, and all the upstairs rooms had electric only lights. All ceiling lights had a wall switch and the foyer light was controlled by a pair of 3-way switches, with one at the front door and the other at the top of the stairs. I think it’s safe to say this was fairly advanced for the day, at least for a non-mansion type home, and I’m willing to bet Mr. Petch did all the installation himself.

For the uninitiated here is a picture of Knob & Tubes (K&T) used in K&T wring.

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The ceramic tubes are used when you need to run a piece of wire through a piece of wood. You first drill the hole in the wood, insert the ceramic tube, and then run the wire through the tube. The ceramic knobs are used when you want to run wire along the side of a board. The knob has 2 parts with a hole through the center for a nail. You secure the wire between the two parts and then nail the knob to the board and it holds the wire secure and keeps it away from the wood. They wired houses like this for decades, and in fact the 1920s addition to my house was wired with K&T wiring.

The 1895 wiring in my house didn’t use ceramic tubes and instead of knobs they used little wooden brackets. When they wanted to run wire through a board they simply drilled a hole and fed the wire through. To secure the wire to the side of a board they used the brackets. The wire was always in contact with the wood. Here are some pictures. You can also see ceramic wire nuts that were original to the 1895 construction.

The wire nuts say Made in Holland

Here is some still in the attic. You can see the new wire I installed a few years ago

There were 3 circuits for the whole house. Note that both the hot and neutral were fused. I think this was from the 20s. I’m not sure if the 1895 wire even had fuses.

I’m not sure if this system was a competing technology to K&T wiring and K&T won out, or if this predates K&T wiring and was fazed out when the “new” technology came about. No one I’ve talked to in this area has seen this before. That doesn’t mean it isn’t here. Let’s face it, a lot of people don’t pay that much attention to details.

Believe it or not all the 1895 wiring was still in use when I bought the house in 2001! All the ceiling fixtures still operated off the 1895 wiring. The 2 lights in the front and back parlors were ran from a single switch in the wall. When the braniacs put up the acoustical ceiling in the 70s they simply put some electrical tape over the wires, pushed them up in the ceiling, and then flipped off the switch. It’s a wonder the place didn’t burn down.

Below is a picture of the switch in the parlor.

Shocking that it was still in use!

There are screws on the face of the switch that secure the wires which are pushed in from behind. It should have a cap on it to cover the screws with only the switch showing. I didn’t realize this thing was still active and I shocked myself on it the first time I screwed with it. I’m not sure if this switch is original to 1895 but I do know that it is from at least 1915 because I found another in the kitchen hidden behind the 1915 partition.

In the kitchen, when they put in the partition and used the redwood conduit to extend the light, they added a shelf to one side of the partition. This shelf blocked the wall switch that now controlled both the original fixture and the new fixture at the end of the conduit. To remedy the situation of the blocked switch they simply turned on the switch, broke off the front of the switch, and then built the shelf in front of it. Both lights had pull chains on them that were then used to turn the lights off and on.

When I was removing the partition, as I started to dismantle the shelf, the lights in the kitchen went off. I thought I had blown a fuse but when I went to the fuse box everything looked fine. As I continued dismantling the shelf the lights came back on…then off…then on…then off. Of course, I eventually realized as I was removing the shelf I was jiggling the switch that had been turned on back in 1915. They turned the damn thing on and then left on for 90 years. As I said before, it’s a wonder this house didn’t burn down.


Jocelyn said...

wow. I can honestly saw I have never seen this before!

We have some old cloth wiring in our house in the dining room, but this really takes the cake.

Lisa said...

That is all just amazing! I've always wondered what knob and tube wiring looked like.... and it does seem miraculous that your house didn't burn to the ground. Awesome post!

(I'm a old-house-renovation blog reader and just found your site - love it and am enjoying the archives tremendously.)

Greg said...

Burrito, welcome, and yes it is a wonder the house didn't burn down. On the stairs leading up to the attic there were bare wires hanging down. I walked by them a dozen times and never thought that they could be live wires until one day I brushed up against them and sparks flew! Yikes!

Anonymous said...

Wow, Greg, that's really cool. I thought I knew what knob and tube was, but I was mistaken. Amazing, when you stop to think that people had little clue and kinda just made it up as they went along, especially with the ever present redwood. You gotta display all of that someday.

BTW - weren't you going to go to NO for Mardi Gras?

Greg said...

My Mom is at my sister's in NO right now. I decided not to go because of the trouble I was having with my nieghors. As it tunrs out, things have calmed down and I could have gone but it was too late to change the plans again.

K said...

Wow! Thanks for the info, and it's amazing that all the original wiring was still working!

Shayla said...

Thanks for posting this.. I actually found a piece of this notched wood with live wire in my house last night - I would have never of realized what this was without your post.

Of course it will all be gone soon as I rewire next month - but it's interesting to see it... scares the heck out of me though that it still is ON...

Anonymous said...

well my home is from 1920, and is still using the K&T wiring in some areas, the Wooden wiring in others and modern, its a blend of all the wiirng used, i'm going to rewire it this winter, and yes this place to i'm amazed it hadn't burnt down.

Mc Bob Mac said...

That is really neat. I love old things like that. I have never seen anything like this before. Is the 1890s wire still in use today in 2009 or has the new wiring taken over everything. What about the old gas lights? I have never seen anything like those before. You should tell me all about that electrical stuff in that house. I am really amazed by it. If you want I guess you could email me a

Greg said...


The 1895 wiring was still running all of the ceiling fixtures when I bought the house in 2000. In fact, the 1895 wiring was in better shape than the 1920s wiring. The insulation seemed to have more rubber in it or something, and was in good shape.

I later found the 1895 "fuse block" in the attic. As suspected, there were no fuses. It was just a large ceramic block to transition form the service wire to the house wire.

DocMac said...

We've just found 8 ceramic wire nuts in a box of leftovers from our parent's old home. They say "Simplex - Patented - Medium - Made in Holland - one No: 18+; one No: 14" on each ceramic nut.
Are these of any real value?

DocMac said...

We've found 8 ceramic wire nuts labeled "Simplex Medium; Made in Holland; Patented; one No: 18+; one No: 14".
Are these of any real value?

Unknown said...

My house still has the wire covers and the oil lamp shelves that were used before electricity