An Overview of Obsolete Electrical Wiring Methods

Before the widespread adoption of modern electrical wiring standards in the early 20th century, homes were wired in a variety of crude and potentially dangerous ways. However, for those looking to recreate an authentic historical aesthetic in their home, rewiring with these obsolete methods can be an appealing challenge. In this article, I will provide an in-depth guide to the most common obsolete wiring methods and how to implement them safely and legally in a modern context.

Gas Pipe and Open Wire

One of the earliest forms of residential electrical wiring, used in the 1880s and 1890s, was gas pipe and open wire. With this method, gas piping already installed in the home for lighting was used to run electrical wires through. Insulated wires were threaded through the pipes and then connections were made at outlets and fixtures.

This exposed the wires to potential leaks and fire hazards from the gas lines. An open wire system with a baseboard molding to hide wires was sometimes used in tandem. While gas pipe wiring is far too dangerous to recreate, you can mimic the aesthetic using modern NM cable or conduit painted to look like old gas pipe, and exposed open wire runs along baseboards.

Knob and Tube Wiring

Knob and tube wiring, used from about 1880-1930, was an early standardized method that improved upon open wire wiring. Wires were separated from one another and suspended along the framing using porcelain knobs, while tubes brought wires through joists and studs. This vastly reduced fire risk compared to open wire runs.

While knob and tube can still be used in some cases, it does not meet most modern electrical codes. However, you can recreate the look using modern NM cable with attachments that mimic porcelain knobs. Where wires pass through framing, you can use white conduit painted to match the surrounding finish.

Choosing Obsolete Fixtures and Devices

When rewiring with obsolete methods, using period-accurate lighting fixtures, switches, and outlets will complete the vintage look. Here are some options to look for:

Gas and Early Electric Lighting

For an early 19th century look, gas fixtures can simulate pre-electric lighting. Many reproductions are available. For early 20th century, find original electric fixtures with carbon filament bulbs. These emit a distinct orange-yellow glow. Popular styles are goosenecks, pendants, and sconces.

Vintage Switches and Receptacles

Look for authentic porcelain receptacles and switches, often with distinctive crackled paint and embossed branding like Bryant or Hubbell. Early types used screw-in fuses instead of plug-in breakers. These make great additions around the home. Just be sure to never overload the circuits.

Cloth-Covered Wiring

Cloth-covered wiring was used from the 1920s-1950s before rubber and plastic insulation became standard. While too hazardous for functional wiring, you can add vintage-looking cloth-covered lamp cord to table lamps or exposed overheads. Just don't wire real cloth cord inside walls.

Installing Obsolete Wiring Styles Safely

While obsolete wiring can never meet modern safety codes, with care it can be adapted to minimally functioning low-voltage installations:

By following safety best practices, you can achieve an authentically antiquated look with enough functionality to bring the past alive, while keeping your home safe. With the right combination of obsolete materials adapted to modern standards, and historically accurate design choices, your home can be a throwback in time while functioning on today's electric grid.