Pressure Lamps International

The Pitner Gasoline Lighting Co.
The Pitner Gasoline Lighting Agency

22 Michigan Street Chicago, Ill USA
Lake Street, Chicago
482 Main Street Winnipeg, Canada

©AWMoore 2016


Marion W Pitner was born in Georgia in 1876, his interest in liquid fuels and lighting led him to start his own gasoline lighting company in Chicago, where he registered several patents, some concerning lighting and others which seemed to have no common theme at all. Later in life he described his occupation as "Chemical Engineer"

His business, the Pitner Gasoline Lighting Co. was based in Chicago, Illinois, and was much better known for its hollow wire lighting systems than it ever was for its free standing pressure lamps, maily because the company ceased trading just at a time when free standing lamps and lanterns were becoming popular. There does not appear to be very much documented evidence in the UK regarding Pitner, but an American book published in 1906 contains many testimonials and photographs of installations dating from several years earlier. The company, still headed by Marion Pitner, became chartered as an Illinois Corporation in April 1904, and because it was inviting customers to investigate its financial standing as early as 1906, the suggestion is that it was trading for one or two years before that date. One quaint but pertinent paragraph from the book reads:

"It is our intention to give herein ample evidence of such indisputable character that anyone can, by reading this book carefully and giving due credit to its contents, satisfy himself beyond any doubt that the Famous Pitner Lighting System is not a substitute for gas or electric lighting but is superior to either and is not to be classed with other gasoline lighting devices that almost everyone has seen or heard of." Shortly after, adverts began to appear in the newspapers around the Chicago area. The advert below from 1907 mentions Truman Swaine, who was Iowa manager for Pitner at that time. Three years later Truman Swain was running his own business, Swaine Gasoline Lighting, from what was reported as one of the best equipped factories in Des Moines. Swaines covered most of the mid west from Texas to North Dakota.

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One of the earliets adverts, from the Des Moines Register, Aug 1907

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From the Indianapolis Star, June 1908

How long does it take to become "Famous"? The suggestion has to be that Pitner had been in the business a long time when they made that claim, but that may not be the case. The book goes on to refer to "thousands of satisfied and delighted customers" so strengthening this suggestion. There is also evidence that Pitner did not advertise in the public media, probably did not advertise very much at all, but instead relied upon testimonials for their business. My own opinion is that it is difficult for any manufacturing company to thrive without advertising, and it could be that we just haven't found many Pitner adverts yet. Although their stated policy was not to advertise, we know that adverts appeared in 1909 and 1913, so maybe the policy was ditched as time went by. In addition, Pitner Gasoline Lighting also appeared as a reference for Victor J Evans & Co (a patents securing business in Washington) between 1911 and 1917. There are also many references to the Pitner Company in newspapers at that time.

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Advert from the Manitoba Morning Free Press, 21 Aug 1909 p7

 

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From the Des Moines Register, 19th Dec 1909 p6

 

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From the Charlotte News, 21 Dec 1909, p31 Part of an article on the Pitner Lamp

 

Some of the lighting methods described in the 1906 book include (1) open flame gasoline torches, as commonly seen around circuses, fruit stands, etc, (2) the carburetor, where gasoline was stored in a tank equipped with a weight or spring driven blower. Air which had been passed over the liquid gasoline was piped through the building, as a flammable gas.

Individual gravity lamps (3) came next, with the under-generator model where the gasoline was vapourised below the burner by a flame separate from the lighting flame, and the over-generator, where only the heat from the flame was used to vapourise the fuel.

The book goes on to describe (4) the "Individual Arc Pressure Lamp" but it gives no maker. It is interesting to read the Pitner claim that filling each one and pumping them up to 40 or 50 pounds pressure was inconvenient, and that the needle cleaning valve was always causing trouble. Also "The danger of having the supply so near the mantle soon caused the people to abandon their use." How wrong they were eventually proved to be, and in spite of that comment, the company did indeed develop and sell such a lamp. Next in Pitner's chronology comes (5) the Gas Machine, which gets quite a technical argument as to why it is unsatisfactory, then finally the Famous Pitner Lighting System has its day. "The invention and perfection of The Famous Pitner Lighting System is beyond doubt the most important invention to users of artificial light since the introduction of the telephone." The Pitner system required reservoirs to be filled daily, and took fuel from the bottom rather than the top of the tank, so it claimed to avoid the problems of fraction separation which dogged other makes.

Ironically, after criticising the Arc Lamp so strongly, Pitner went on to manufacture a large table lamp which was almost identical in principle to the Hydro-Carbon Company Air-O-Lite of about 1912. The similarity was so great that it prompted Coleman Historian Herb Ebendorf to comment "I wonder who was copying who!". The Pitner parlour lamp below is without doubt a very high quality product. This particular specimen, found in Canada, is in such superb condition that at first I thought it must be recent, in spite of the style, but Anthony Hobson, author of "Lanterns that Lit our World" reports in his book that Pitner ceased trading in 1916. It seems that these parlour lamps were individually numbered, and the book of instructions which accompanied each lamp was marked with the same number as the lamp.

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This is a Pitner Parlour lamp, the controls and filler are hidden under the heavy sliding collar at the base of the column.
The shade on the left is obviously wrong, and a much larger glass or parchment shade would have been used, as on the lamp in the advertisement, which comes from the February 1913 issue of "The Canadian Thresherman and Farmer".

There is a natural evolution from hollow wire to free standing lighting appliances, and it would be expected that Pitner would have followed this path, as just about every other manufacturer did. Unless, of course, they were so committed to an already successful but ageing system that they relied on it's past superiority to combat advancing technology. There is evidence for another free standing self contained pressure lamp by Pitner, one which would have been used for outdoor lighting. Whether or not other models were ever sold is a matter of conjecture at this stage. In the early days their stated policy of not advertising may also have been a crucial factor, since they would have been up against serious pressure from successful competitors who did advertise very extensively. Later, it seems that Pitner did advertise in appropriate magazines, and had at least one base in Canada, the Portable Lamp Department at 62 Albert Street, Winnipeg.

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Pitner hanging lamp, circa 1906

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By 1916 the Pitner Gasoline Co had used advertising media in magazines, as seen here.

 

The technology of liquid gas fueled lighting appliances is very similar to heating appliances, and many lighting equipment manufacturers also made products such as domestic heaters and clothes irons. The ONONDAGA COUNTY Classified business directory of 1917 contains a reference to the Pitner Gas Iron Company, which I assume was a branch of the lighting company. I have no other details at present, but it seems reasonable to assume that they were part of the same parent company, and specialised in irons. The Pitner Gasoline Lighting Co Plant in Kinzie St was destroyed by a huge fire in December 1916. The five story building on the corner of State and Kinzie Streets was completely destroyed by the fire, which started shortly after midnight. The night watchmen, Mr Jendron, tried to telephone for help with "flames leaping around him", but the operator did not answer his calls and he was forced to leave the building. The delay allowed the fire to take hold, and around 50 people (some "thinly clad" in the cold December night) were forced to leave a nearby lodging house, while the State Hotel on the corner of North State and Kinzie Streets was also evacuated. Crowds gathered to watch the blaze, and it is likely that stocks of gasoline on the premises made the fire uncontrollable.

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The Day Book, Chicago, 23 Dec 1916, p6

In contrast to the prolific number of newspaper adverts and articles between 1910 and 1916, there was a conspicuous absence of advertising during the following year, so we can only speculate that the fire had a devastating effect of the business. In fact except for private individuals selling secondhand systems I have not found any subsequent advertisements, so I presume the company never recovered from the fire, and that Anthony Hobson is correct in his statement that the company went out of business in 1916.

*******

 

References:

Pitner Gasoline Lighting Co publications

Popular Mechanics Magazine January 1911

Popular Mechanics Magazine  May 1916 p172

The Indianapolis Star, 14 June 1908 p8

The Charlotte News, 21 Dec 1909 p31

The Des Moines Register, 24 Aug 1907, and 19 Dec 1909 p6

The Day Book, Chicago, 23 December 1916 p6

 

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