See the light with the push of a button


One of those nights when it was too hot to sleep I decided to get a drink of cold water at three in the morning.

I stepped into the second-floor hall and pushed the light switch. It is the old round, push-button variety, a veteran of many years' service in an 1871 house, probably wired for electricity about 1900. It had given out. Dead. No light. No nothing.

I've never lived in a house that didn't have ancient push-button switches. So when my electrician told me to forget about ever replacing them because they aren't made any more, I retreated into a funk.

Push-button switches were the standard fittings of the house where I was born in the 2800 block of Guilford Ave. The best set of them was in the front hall where three or four operated off a graceful brass plate.

Each Friday my Aunt Cora got out a can of Solarine brass polish -- similar to Brasso but made somewhere in Baltimore and therefore considered a superior product. She worked on the switch plates, then the brass on the outside and the front door.

As children, we delighted in making believe the push buttons operated secret elevators. If you pushed the top button in, the bottom one popped out. It was a game to us and we probably succeeded in fouling up many electrical circuits in the process.

The house's antique electrical wiring could be counted on to provide some entertainment. The actual light fixtures hung from the ceiling via three metal chains. These chains held suspended glass globes. They looked like big milkglass salad bowls or punch bowls, hanging over the hall and dining room table. Electric lights sat inside the glass domes. The milkglass diffused the light . It all looked very 1915, the year the house was built.

Twice a year Aunt Cora hauled out a step ladder and climbed it to scrub these fixtures, the final resting place for houseflies, moths, spiders and wasps.

It was a tradition to see whether my brother Eddie or I could slip in behind her and touch the push button switch a few minutes after she'd completed the job.

Officially, you were just testing to see if any cobwebs were left in the light bowl. What you wanted, of course, was for the bulb to go "pop" thanks to still being wet.

I wonder if she ever caught.

This story has a happy ending. In an Aug. 8 column, I mentioned that there seem to be catalogs for everything but push-button light switches.

Some readers knew otherwise, and quick as an electric pulse they supplied the name of Classic Accents, a two-man firm in Southgate, Mich.

Peter Brevoort, the Classic Accent president, found himself in a predicament similar to mine a number of years ago. He lives in a ranch house but had some beautiful brass electrical switch plates from his grandfather's house.

"From what I can tell the last push button switches were made between 1954 and 1957," he said.

Then he did something about this major shortcoming of American electrical engineering. He soon had brass push-button plates and switches made for him. The switches are built in Taiwan; the plates come from a number of brass sources.

"One of our biggest users is the film industry. The push buttons are used in "Murder She Wrote" and in films like 'Brighton Beach Memoirs," he said.

Renovators of old houses like them too, he said, although the demand is never so great that he needs more than four employees, including himself, at peak periods. After Hollywood, the other big customers are governments, federal and local.

"When old courthouses get restored, the people doing the work like to keep things original," Mr. Brevoort said.

In addition to Mr. Brevoort, these other devotees of push-button switches earned my thanks: Larry Paul, of the 300 block of Hilltop Road, Linthicum; Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, of the 400 block of E. 31st St.; Mike McNulty of Gardenville; Rita Lombard of Spotted Horse Lane, Columbia; Mary J. Fuhrman of the 2200 block of Old Frederick Road; Alfred K. Gladden of the 2700 block of Southern Ave.; Alan Bowman of Marks, Thomas and Associates, architects; and James Thomas Wollon Jr., an architect in Havre de Grace.

They all prefer their electricity at the push of a button rather than at the flick of a toggle switch.

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