Gas Lamp Lighters Address • “Say, can a greater wonder e’re be found / Than light conveyed by syphons under ground?”

“Say, can a greater wonder e’re be found / Than light conveyed by syphons under ground?”

Gas Lamp Lighters Address. Broadside with two poems, illustrated with woodcuts, 500 x 375 mms., with imprint of E. Billing and Son, Printers, 186, Bermondsey Street. [London], c. 185-. [Call number: (Ex) Broadside 408] Purchased in 2008.

Seeking a gratuity at the Christmas season, the gas lamp lighter greets his customer with verse and pictures. His work is heroic, as the verse points out, achieving far greater wonder than steam power (“hurl mankind full fifty miles per hour”) and the “electric stream” (“transmits in moments news to distant land.” (In 1849, a telegraph line was laid under the English Channel connecting Dover to Calais; it took a number of years for locomotives, first introduced in 1804, to reach speeds of 50 miles per hour. Coal gas — a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, methane, etc — first illuminated Pall Mall in London in 1807. )

Delighting the eye are two large pictures:

At top, “The merry dance, the gay and festive throng/ Beneath the boughs of misselto’s bright green/ To jolly Christmas only can belong/ For now’s the time superior pleasures seen….” Certainly this must be Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball. (The original John Leech illustration first appeared in the first edition of Dickens’s masterpiece A Christmas Carol, London, 1843).

At bottom is “View of the Gas Works,” the centerpiece of a triptych flanked by images of dandy “Gasmen” in top hat. This large scene is derived from the 1821 print “Drawing the Retorts at the Great Gas Light Establishment, Brick Lane.”

Between the upper and lower large scenes are depicted further wonders. At middle left, above a scene of the birth of Christ is “The Gasometer.” At middle right, above the scene of the Crucifixion is “Drawing the Retorts.” (A gasometer or gas-holder is a large container for holding gas. “Drawing the Retorts” refers to clearing spent coal from the distilling apparatus.) The parallelism is most subtle — at left, images of promise and supply; at right, images of exhaustion and work done. ‘Tis a curious double message about who is the worker of wonders: God and /or man?


The above is a graph generated by Excel from a table of the holdings for the general rare book collection at Princeton, commonly referred to as the Ex collection.

The x axis (horizontal) is date of publication. The y axis (vertical) is the number of books in the Ex collection with that date.

Of course, the obvious question to ask is: “What does this graph tell us about the general character of the collection?”

On the one hand, there is an expected answer. The number of books held in the collection and printed in a given year rises over time from the beginning of printing in the 15th century down to the present. This enlarging curve is comparable to the standard graph of all books produced worldwide from the beginning of printing down to the present. Print production follows the curve of expanding world population. It makes sense that as there are more books produced for a given year, there are more books collected.

However, if you look closely, you will see spikes at the following points: 1640s, 1680s, 1770s, 1790s, and the 1860s.

Q. What is the reason for these spikes?

A. War, revolution, and the threat of revolution.

The collections have long had a bias toward books printed in either Great Britain or the United States. Such were the cultural origins of many of past donors and providers of endowments. Recovering origins has long been a characteristic of collecting. But these reasons would only account for general trends.

More specifically, war and revolution are periods that produce a surge in the production of print. Contest and controversy accelerate communication. When it is over, however, it makes sense that there are those who seek to recover what has been lost and determine what has come about afterwards by collecting. Their collecting follows the publishing patterns of war, revolution, and the fear of revolution.

1640s – The English Civil War generated innumerable pamphlets

1680s – Restoration of Protestant monarchs to the English throne

1770s – War in the British Colonies in North America

1790s – Fear in England of the invasion of French revolutionary ideas as well as of Napoleon’s army

1860s – Civil War in the US / War between the States