Schermerhorn Hall (Room 807), 1180 Amsterdam Avenue, New York
Steady, bright light is conducive to work. At first glance, it is hard to see this claim as anything more than common sense based on ordinary experience. Upon closer examination, the truism turns out to have a history. It was formulated by capitalist reason in factories as a product of lighting innovations, first gas in the early nineteenth century and then electric in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. As sites of concentrated labor, factories—textile mills in particular—were early adopters of lighting technologies. They were also privately owned, organized for profit, and comprised several constituencies: workers, management and, in the context of lighting, illuminating engineers. These finite aims and limited actors narrowed rationales for lighting and simplified its historical politics. Electric lighting’s varied social effects touted in other spheres were eclipsed in factories by the singular goal of enhancing profitability. Lighting was conceived in such settings not as a public good or service but as a factor of production.
Sandy Isenstadt, Chair and Professor of Art History at the University of Deleware
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