Electrical Archaeology

The summer construction season is here and I’m well underway with my exterior projects. These projects have so far included re-framing the entrance doorway of the old “barn” (shed) and adding a lockable latch on the barn doors, replacing rotted wood dutch lap siding on the “barn”, installing gutters on the Mason Lodge in an attempt to dry out the Lodge’s basement, and installing a chimney cap on the Lodge to keep out animals and water.  I also got around to having a building contractor come out to look at the dilapidated workshop building. I’m now waiting, as much as it pains me, for a quote from the contractor to have it torn down and rebuilt.  In the meantime, the claw foot tub still remains in my first floor office, waiting for me to come up with an imaginative way to painlessly move it to the third floor bathroom, where a nice open space waits for it.

And, my bat problem is back.  A litter of bat pups somehow found their way into one of my closets, without their mother. One even found its way out of the closet and onto a wall in the main house’s second floor middle bedroom where my daughter’s boyfriend found it.  These pups were too young to fly, but were old enough to make quite a bit of noise.  I didn’t realize that bats could be so noisy.  Thus, finding and sealing the openings where these bats are coming into the house is quickly becoming a priority. I do have to acknowledge, however, that it is fun watching my wife dive under tables in her attempts to avoid bats that are flying around the family room.

As you can see from all of this activity, it is never dull here at the Neebor Lee house. And now to add to this activity, my wife is stoking the flames for a new project:  she wants to convert the dining room in the oldest part of the house into a family/entertainment room.  Her reasoning, which makes sense, is to make better use of the nicest room in the house.  This room, which has a beautiful fireplace, nice hardwood floors and a cozy recessed sitting area, is terribly underused.  When it is not used for temporary storage, it occasionally serves as the location for our family’s holiday dinners.  In addition, since it is completely enclosed by stone walls, this room remains one of the coolest if not the coolest of all of the rooms in the house. Even on the warmest of days, an air conditioner is not needed to cool this room. It serves as a reminder that the 18th century builders knew how to maintain comfort without today’s fancy technology. My wife’s plans call for moving the dining room to the neighboring foyer (historical known as the “smoking lounge”) where there is actually more room for a large table for extended family meals. It took me awhile to warm up to the idea, but I’ve finally come around.

The fireplace in the family dining.

There may be one problem that will complicate this project, however.  The electrical service in this section of the house may not be up for the challenge.  At issue are the electrical outlets.  I had never seen outlets like these before.  Each receptacle has four parallel openings. By appearance,  they are very old.  A search of the Internet identified these outlets as “tandem and parallel” outlets, and they were apparently common in the early part of the 20th century just when houses were being wired for the first time. They were the precursor to the old T-slot receptacles that you more commonly find in old homes today. It would thus appear that my dining room, foyer and living room are being serviced by outlets that are over 100 years old. Based on my research, the manufacture of these outlets ended more than 50 years ago in about 1960.

The problem with these outlets is that they are not grounded. I can continue to use use them for ungrounded parallel plugs such as those typically found in lamps. In fact, I have a lamp or two plugged into them in the house’s “parlor” (what we know today as a “living room”). However, they are not suitable for plugs that have grounding pegs such as those that would come with a 55-inch LCD flat screen television.   Thus, I would need a ground if I was to use this room as a family/entertainment room. To find a solution to this problem, I’ve arranged a visit by a local electrical contractor to see what can be done to modernize the outlets. I only hope that establishing a ground will be easy and not require the rewiring of my entire first floor.

Antique 100+ year-old tandem and parallel outlets that are found on the Neebor Lee’s first floor.

At least I can be comforted in knowing that I don’t have knob and tube wiring, which would require a substantial upgrade in electric service. There are, however, vestiges of knob and tube wiring in certain areas of the Neebor Lee “compound”. There is, for example, porcelain knobs still found on certain walls in the outbuildings, including in the “barn” and in the basement of the Mason Lodge, revealing that these outbuildings were also serviced by electric prior to 1930s.

Antique push-button light switch.

And while I’m discussing the electrical history of the Neebor Lee house, I might as well mention a few other interesting  and historic electrical components. Our favorites are switches of the old push button kind that are found on the first two floors of the old section of the main house.  We really like these switches; they’re functional and they add character and charm to the home. We like them so much, in fact, that we may purchase reproductions to replace some of the modern switches that had more recently been installed in the main house.

And then there are the oddballs:  Very old switches, perhaps pre-dating 1900, that just look scary and unsafe.  I’m guessing that they are a vestige of the very first electrical service brought into the home.  Fortunately they are not in use anymore, but exposed metal on these switches would appear to suggest that when they were in use they posed a danger to anyone who would have touched them the wrong way. To make them even more scary is the fact that they are found in the Mason Lodge, which prior to 1903 was children’s playhouse.  Because they are so unusual, I plan on keeping them on the wall of the Mason Lodge as a lasting memory of the largely unsafe electrical history of the Neebor Lee. Of course, they will continue remain out-of-service (for insurance purposes, only).

Electrical switch found in the Mason Lodge.


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Electrical switch found in the Mason Lodge.

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