Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 292 – The American Reflector and Lighting Company

Part 292: The American Reflector and Lighting Company

The American Reflector and Lighting Company has appeared in many of my searches over this past year. I first encountered the name of the company when looking through the papers of John R. Rothgeb at the Univeristy of Texas, Austin – Harry Ransom Center. As I was quickly compiling an inventory of the contents in this primarily unprocessed collection, I noticed the name American Reflector and Lighting Company. It was listed in the the paperwork for the final estate of Joseph S. Sosman’s wife, May P. Sosman. 25 shares of American Reflector and Lighting Company stock were noted and valued at $100 each. I was intrigued.

Photocopy made by John R. Rothgeb for his research pertaining to the Soman & Landis scenic studio of Chicago. His collection (John R. Rothgeb Papers) is at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas – Austin.

A year later, while I was examining the rigging in the Yankton Scottish Rite with Rick Boychuk, I saw the name American Reflector and Lighting Company again. We were crawling around the building, then – “Lo and Behold!” – I noticed the company’s name on a metal cover.

American Reflector and Lighting Company metal cover found in the attic of the Yankton Scottish Rite during November 2017.

By the way, one of my favorite things to do is explore the attics of Masonic buildings. They are treasure troves that contain a variety of artifacts providing information about the past. Luckily, few Masons take it upon themselves to organize a cleaning day for the attic, or space above the stage and auditorium. If they did, even more valuable artifacts would end up in a dumpster. I finally decided to continue the research concerning the American Reflector and Lighting Company that I started while in Texas during 2016.

American Reflector and Lighting Company opened its doors just before the Columbian Exposition in 1893. Pretty smart move, considering that the fairgrounds would need and extensive amount of street and specialty lighting – all done at the last minute. The world fair opened a few months after the American Reflector and Lighting Company. Sosman and Landis had also opened the annex studio in anticipation of the increased workload and were greatly diversifying their product.

Advertisement for the American Reflector and Lighting Company in a Sosman & Landis Catalogue from 1894-1895. Collection of Wendy Waszut-Barrett.
Lighting fixtures advertised in a Sosman & Landis Catalogue from 1894-1895. Collection of Wendy Waszut-Barrett.

On March 24,1893, The Chicago Inter Ocean included the American Reflector and Lighting Company of Chicago as a newly formed business under the heading “Licensed To Do Business.” The company’s incorporators were listed as Perry Landis, William A. Toles and Robert Latham. The capital stock was valued $100,000. Charles Landis was listed as the treasurer. The Chicago salesroom was located at 271-273 Franklin Street where the company advertised 150 styles of reflectors for users of electricity, gas and oil. Their lighting fixtures used crystal glass lined with pure metallic silver to provide “the best practical reflecting surface.” The company advertised that their reflectors, for both indoor and outdoor lighting, “promised that the power of light was fully utilized, as its rays are saved from waste, strengthened and thrown in the desired direction.” The 1897 issue of “Western Electrician” included a plate with American reflectors manufactured by the company (Vol. XX, Jan. 2-June 26, page 505 and 518). “Paragon reflectors” were a specialty line of the company’s product, also made in a variety of forms.

Some of the lighting fixtures manufactured by the American Reflector and Lighting Company in 1897. Included in the December issue of Western Electrician, 1897.

William A. Toles, was the second of three incorporators to found the American Reflector and Lighting Company. He had a history with the reflector business in Chicago as he had also helped found and manage the Wheeler Reflector Company of Chicago. The two other incorporators for that company the Willard L. Gillam and George E. Plumb. The Wheeler Reflector Company sold the reflector designs of civil engineer and inventor, William Wheeler (1851-1932). Wheeler was widely known for his innovative patents that included not only lighting, but also water and sewage systems. In 1880, Wheeler filed a patent for a novel form of lighting. He commercialized his invention through the Wheeler Reflector Company of Boston, Massachusetts. The company was extremely profitable and remained an important manufacturer of street lighting until the mid-twentieth century.

One of many inventions by William Wheeler to reflect light for increased visibility.
One of many inventions by William Wheeler to reflect light for increased visibility.
One of many inventions by William Wheeler to reflect light for increased visibility.

An ex-employee in Chicago later accused Toles of bribing city officials to select their company when contracting work for streetlights during 1886 (The Inter Ocean, 4 April 1887, page 1). After the excitement of this accusation ended Toles created another business – the Western Wheeler Reflector Company.

The Western Wheeler Reflector Company was located at No. 88 Lake Street in Chicago. On April 13, 1888, the Chicago Inter Ocean reported the company’s incorporators as William A Toles, Willard L. Giliman, and George E. Plume. Same individuals, slightly different spelling of names in the newspaper announcement. This time, the company started with $50,000 in capital.

During the 1880s Toles started two reflector companies. By 1893, he was involved in a third – The American Reflector and Lighting Company. The Western Wheeler Reflector Company was also still in business at the time his third company opened. There were a lot of potential contracts to provide city lights, stage lighting and illuminate the Columbian Exposition. For Toles, it was a win-win. For Sosman & Landis, it was diversifying their interests and ensuring a healthy profit at the end of the day.

When Landis left the Sosman & Landis in 1904 and after Sosman passed away in 1914, Thomas G. Moses was primarily responsible for the running of the studio. Unfortunately, he was a scenic artist who mainly focused on the painted scenery and not all of the other areas of the company. The scenic studios who continued to thrive were those who diversified into fabric curtains, rigging and other stage hardware. As Moses continued to focus on a painted aesthetic, the world began to pass him by, as well as the Sosman & Landis studio. The entire aesthetic for the entertainment industry began to change and a company had to be willing to let certain products surpass existing favorites – like painted illusion. This was especially important as the Great Depression began.

To be continued…

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