Pressure Lamps International

Sun Vapor Burner Co

Sun Vapor Street Light Co.

Sun Vapor Light & Stove Co

Sun Vapor Light Co.

Sun Vapor & Gas Street Light Co

Box 118 Canton Ohio.
304 Market Street, Canton, Ohio.
114 - 118  East Fifth Street, Canton, Ohio.

 

From the outset, unraveling the history of this group of companies is an ongoing and a somewhat tricky process, and even though there are many sources of information they do not all agree and are even contradictory in detail. It is possible that the Sun Vapor Light Co and the Sun Vapor Street Light Co are separate and unrelated entities, or they may both be part of the same business but operated independently.  Both companies advertise the same "Sun" gasoline lamp, so the assumption here is that they are operating together but targeting different markets.

A key starting point comes from the booklet The Sun Vapor Street Light Company, manufacturers of the world-renowned "Sun" incandescent lamps. A significant sentence describes The Sun Vapor Street Light Company as successors to The Sun Vapor Light & Stove Co., The Ohio Street Lighting Co., The Belden Burner Co., Minnesota Street Lighting Co., The Western Street Light Co., and The Columbus Lantern Works. The date of the booklet is not certain, but it seems to be published some 25 years after the "beginning", by which time some of the key men had either died, retired, or moved on to other firms. In the early days it is apparent that the main thrust of the business took in contractual arrangements with towns across the USA for providing and maintaining street lighting, and for supplying the gasoline needed as well. These contracts were really quite valuable, and overshadowed the less lucrative domestic market, hence the inclusion of the words "street lighting" in more than one company name at that time.

The name of The Sun Vapor Light Co in all probability was inspired from the scientific description of activity on the surface of the sun, where observable solar flares were generally thought to be caused by "sun vapor" being ejected. A passage in The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle from March 1886 reads "It has been our belief for some time that the green suns seen in 1883 and attributed to volcanic dust were the result of sun vapors about the sun itself. The sun is undoubtedly throwing off immense clouds of vapor" Some early mantles did indeed produce a slight greenish glow, so maybe there was good reason for the company name, but ironically the colored suns were more likely due to volcanic dust!

The main figure in the company history was Martin L. Best. He invented the Sun Vapor gas burner around 1881, and started the Sun Vapor Burner Co.  partnered by Levi L. Miller. They were very soon providing street lighting to many towns, and were proud of the reputation they built, and defended it vigorously when necessary. (Levi Miller was possibly also known as Lewis Miller, but there were many typographical errors in newspapers at that time).

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Extract from The Chicago Tribune, May 1883

 

Early reports suggest the business was very active in the late 19th century. It was common practice to announce new arrivals in town through personal entries in local newspapers, and the one below confirms the arrival of Clem Best, son of Martin Best, on the evening of 1 April 1885. Occasionally other men are named in reports, for example we know that Mr John Conch represented the company during negotiations for a contract drawn up in Trumansburg for the provision of street lights in October 1886. At that time the street light was a simple affair with an open fan burner inside a glazed lantern frame fed with gasoline from an elevated can, the fuel flow controlled by a simple tap. These lamps had to be lit manually, and town contracts for street lights often included the regular lighting of the lamps as well as maintenance. It is not surprising that there are several reports of lamplighters being burned when spilled gasoline ignited, sometimes the whole horse-drawn cart with the gasoline bowser going up in flames as well.

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Wilkes Barre Evening News  2 April 1885 p4

At this time it seems that the name Sun Vapor Light and Stove Co and Sun Vapor Light Co were both in use, and it is not entirely clear when or if the different names became significant. Domestic and commercial lamps were also available, and one report states "P J Gallager of the St Charles Hotel has hung over his pool table a gasoline chandelier manufactured by the Sun Vapor Light and Stove Co of Canton, Ohio. It is a good improvement to the place."

Natural gas was available in many cities, but was not piped to all areas, and gasoline lighting was frequently used only in areas outside the the boundaries of the gas supply, as this report shows.

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 This report appeared in the town of Marion, Ohio in June 1886

 

There was fierce competition between the natural gas companies, the makers of gasoline lighting, and the electric companies, and favour swung one way then the other as new inventions and developments came along. The following few years were extremely difficult for Best and Miller, and after an acrimonious falling out in 1893 between stockholders of the Sun Vapor companies, where Robert Miller was apparently general manager of the Sun Vapor Light Co and the Sun Vapor Street Light Co (he was also general manager of and C. Aultman & Co, which was another manufacturing business in Canton Ohio). Miller was accused of embezzlement, and in the furor both companies effectively "failed". Meetings of creditors were held in April 1894 in an attempt to resolve the matter, and it appears that the business did keep on trading. Miller, (who co-incidentally happened to be the brother in law of Thomas Edison) was eventually cleared of the charges, but not until March 1896.

 

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Report from The Carroll Sentinel, 14 Dec 1893

 

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 The Best family abandon their old company, Salem Daily News, May 1897

 

Shortly afterwards in January 1898 The Sun Vapor Stove Co filed for association in the city of Detroit, but the one report seen does not give stockholder names. Anyway, The Sun Vapor Street Light Co did survive the failure, as the receiver had suggested, the business was kept in operation because the loss to the towns would so great if it closed. A year later, in January 1899, Robert Miller is postmaster at Ponce, Porto Rico where another series of events and a long hearing leads to him being declared bankrupt after a petition was filed the month before.

In Jan 1900 the Sun Vapor Light Co begins to advertise for agents to sell Sun Vapor Incandescent Lamps. These are designed for domestic and commercial use and the adverts suggest that "Every Family Wants One" Curiously (or perhaps not!) in some newspapers this advert appears next to a similar advert for the "Best Light" so it is around this time that the Best family set up their new business, leaving the Sun Vapor Light Co to develop in it's own way.

Unrelated to lamps and lanterns, but interesting anyway is the report that Edward Goldberg, former manager of the Sun Vapor Light Co died suddenly of mushroom poisoning in 1900. It probably wasn't mushrooms that caused his death, instead it was what he or his cook thought were mushrooms!

In January 1900 Mr Spencer Weart (sometimes spelled Wirt) was president of Sun Vapor Lighting Co, and he visited Wichita in an attempt to win new business, with the Sun Vapor Street Light Co advertising for agents to sell the "Sun" incandescent gasoline lamp now available from 100 to 400 cp.

Then in May 1901, a public auction is held to sell off some assets of the Sun Vapor Street Light Co, this is all in the aftermath of the events of 1893 and 94. The auction was held at the door of the courthouse in Canton, with the spectacle of municipal authorities bidding for their own contracts with the company lest they fall into the hands of speculators seeking to make a quick profit.

In September 1903, Russell Chase, secretary of the company, returned from his 6th trip to Europe, saying that "Americans are Kings, as British commerce is suffering greatly from the Yankee Invasion" At this stage it is not known if Russell Chase was related to Guy Chase (of Nagel-Chase). Chicago is not so far from Canton, and it seems sometimes that everyone in the lighting industry is connected in some way.

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7th year of success, from The Evening Star, February 1906

 

As well as advertising themselves, manufacturing companies also had their agents, each with their own territory. These agents were able to advertise themselves, but what their employers thought when an agent had divided loyalties we may never know. This agent, Clarence Johnson, was keen enough to include the Gloria Light Co and the Planet Manufacturing Co along with Sun Vapor Street Light Co in his advert placed in the Beloit Daily Call for several issues in succession.

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The Beloit Daily Call, February 1908

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1907 Advertisement from Popular Mechanics magazine

 

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Advert from Popular Mechanics magazine, 1907

From the claim in these adverts, Sun Vapor are in their 9th year of success.

 

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Advert for Hollow Wire systems, from Popular Mechanics magazine, 1909

 

 

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Advert from Feb 1909

 

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Advert from March 1909

 

In 1914, the Sun Vapor Street Light Co (West Virginia) changed its name to The Sun Vapor and Gas Street Light Co. and after this time the number of advertisements declined quite quickly, so the assumption is that the company (or companies) ceased trading sometime before 1920. There is a suggestion that The Bests may have retained a nominal interest in the Sun Vapor companies, so this date ties in loosely with the retirement of Clem Best in 1920.

It is not certain what the final manufactured products of these companies were, whether they made only gravity fed lamps, or if they stayed with the stiff competition that was now producing pressurised lamps for indoor use. Photographs from collectors would be very welcome to help finalise the details here.

 

See also the Best Street Light Co page

 

References:

The Evening Leader, Wilkes Barre, 2 April 1885 p4

Wilkes Barre Evening News, 2 April 1885 p4 and 8 June 1885 p4

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 18 March 1886 p4

The Marion Star 3 June 1886, p5

Lawrence Daily Journal 13 December 1893 p1

The Salem Daily News 18 May 1897 p2

LinkSun Vapor and Gas Street Light Company. "The Sun Vapor Street Light Company, manufacturers of the world-renowned "Sun" incandescent lamps" Canton, Ohio 1905

Popular Mechanics Magazine January 1907 p178

Popular Mechanics Magazine February 1907 p282

The Beloit Daily Call, 27 February 1908 p4

Popular Mechanics Magazine January 1909 p123

Popular Mechanics Magazine February 1909 p126

Popular Mechanics Magazine March 1909 p140

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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