“John Presents the Monthly Gas Tax”

May 14, 1881

William A. Rogers

“John Presents the Monthly Gas Tax”

Black Americans; Business, Gas Companies; Home Life; Technology, Gas Heating/Lighting;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Paterfamilias. "Well, John, just in proportion as the quality of the gas does down, the size of the bill goes up."

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by W. A. Rogers registers the shock of a residential gas customer upon receiving his gas bill.

In the 1860s, kerosene (a petroleum derivative) came into widespread use for lighting American homes, although many rural families continued to rely upon candles and lamps fueled by various oils (e.g., whale).  The kerosene lamps required a great deal of care in filling, cleaning, and wick trimming, in addition to being malodorous and fire hazards.  Because gaslight was cleaner and less demanding, it soon became an alternative source of illumination for those urban homeowners who lived near a gas line and could afford the installation costs.  Gaslights in residences came in two formats:  wall fixtures in bedrooms and hallways; and chandeliers with several lights and glass or porcelain shades (as above the table in this cartoon), which were usually reserved for the parlor or dining room.

Most Americans in the late-nineteenth century, however, were unable to afford gas or (later) electric lighting, so continued to use kerosene lamps.  They could, however, experience gas lighting as illumination on some urban and suburban streets (in 1853, the Clifton area of Cincinnati was the first) and in an increasing number of public places, such as schools, factories, train stations, hotels, theaters, hospitals, government buildings, department stores, the ritzier barrooms, and other businesses.

In 1879, Thomas Edison's invention of the incandescent electric light bulb and the inception of the electrical power industry sent gas companies into a panic.  In the early 1880s, electricity began to replace gas as the source for illumination in streetlights, businesses, and other public places.  In response, gas companies began to consolidate and raise their prices for often-substandard gas.  The article accompanying this cartoon, entitled "The Tyranny of the Monopolies," discusses primarily the telegraph and gas industries.  Of the latter, the writer accuses:  "They make just what gas they please, charge what they want for it, and slap the customer's face, so to speak, if he dares to protest against either the quality or the price." 

In 1885, the Consolidated Gas Company raised its prices by 25%..  Hotel owners and other major users of gas established a Gas Consumers Association, and demanded that the New York legislature investigate the industry.  In 1886, the state legislature enacted a measure capping the maximum price for gas per cubic foot at a rate 1/6 below the prevailing rate.  In the 1890s, new gas companies arose in the metropolitan New York area to compete with the existing ones, resulting in lower gas prices and a subsiding of the agitation in the press and public against the industry.  In the early-twentieth century, the use of gas for illumination declined substantially, while its use in home appliances--such as stoves, water heaters, and furnaces--increased.

In this cartoon, "tax" refers not to a government fee, but to the cost of gas charged by the private utility.  The family is wealthy enough to have installed gas lighting and hired a butler, but the rise in gas prices has already forced them to resort to traditional forms of lighting--kerosene lamps, candles, and fireplace--to supplement their gas chandelier.  The deprivation, however, has brought the family together.  The technological innovations of gas or electric light fixtures throughout a house, along with central heating, allowed the separation of the family throughout the household.  In contrast, the older sources of light and heat--fireplaces, stoves, candles, and lamps--were limited in range and often stationary, thus encouraging the family to congregate in one room (as seen here).  A social change reflected in this cartoon is the elimination of the middleman--a kerosene merchant or deliveryman--with whom the family had interacted, but who is now replaced by a piece of paper:  the bill.

Robert C. Kennedy

“John Presents the Monthly Gas Tax”
May 21, 2024

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