Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Vintage Hubbell Brass Light Switches

I have searched high and low online over the last four years for these light switches.

And I've had no success. My hope is that by putting up a few pictures, somebody out there there will find these and comment on them. As near as I can tell, these brass Hubbell light switches are original to the house. Harvey Hubbell designed these switches in the 1920's and was granted a patent around 1926.

I'm a little puzzled about the chronology though. Our house was built in 1921, so there is a chance that these switches were installed a few years after the house was finished. What I'd really like to do is get my hands on a Hubbell catalog from the 1920's in hopes of finding the first year these switches were sold.

When we bought our house, there were still about 10 functional in the house. The rest had been replaced by more modern toggle switches. When the house was re-wired in 2008, our electrician took out the remaining and replaced them with modern toggles. When he was done, I put back the functional ones in the public spaces of the house - the front entry, the living room and the dining room.

The problem is that the switches do break. They have one flaw in the design where metal fatigue causes a break after 90+ years. Two weeks ago, I lost the three way switch in the living room and now it's been replaced by a brown plastic toggle switch. It looks fine, but the brass ones look so much better. So I've decided to see if I can find replacements, or replacement parts.

Occasionally, unusual stuff shows up on E-bay, so that's probably my best bet for now. I did find these, as modern replacements, but they are still not quite the same. And using these are prohibitively expensive.

Here is a picture of the light switch outside of the wall. You can see that there is no visible screw or fastener for the plate.

The plate comes off by untwisting the round beveled ring around the switch. This screws onto the main switch and holds the plate in place.

The switch is screwed into an electrical box, similar to a modern switch. One difference though is the size of the switch. It's gargantuan compared to a modern switch. Also the wires are attached to screws on the front of the switch, so they have to be snaked around the switch to the front. One unfortunate side effect of all this is that there are live wires that are uncomfortably close to the brass metal plate that you touch when you turn on the light. When I installed the switches, I grounded the switch, to help with any stray current, but originally, they would not have been grounded.

Here is a picture of the internal switch. This is a three way switch.

And this is the switch itself. It seems rather clunky. The switch is a pivot point and there is a spring on the back half of the pivot. The switch offers resistance and a very loud "click" when the switch is thrown. As the bottom half of the pivot moves, it forces part of the teeter totter part on the right to move up or down and make contact as appropriate.

For many of the switches, I have all the parts and I might be able to solder them back together, but I'd have to be sure that the soldered joint was stronger than the original piece, otherwise it's just not worth it. So if anyone runs across switches like these and knows anything about them, please let me know.


Ragnar said...

The only thing I can do is tell you something about the technology of those switches... they were "fast action" toggle switches suitable for DC loads. Later, less substantial switches were designed for AC only. In some places, similar switches (but made of bakelite) were produced until well after WWII (not conting nostalgic replicas).

Anonymous said...

I have some porc style switches with the same mechanism inside, their from the 1900-1925 tho, and ive only found them in an old first type electric fireplace. it has the same "see-saw" fast action type design

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Anonymous said...

I plan to screw in a modern ac toggle into the hole the original comes out of. Your original is designed for dc current as mentioned above so high mechanical spec - see the article switch in wiki look at the contact section see arc and quench. As the original is designed for dc it will have less or no insulation as less electrocution risk. You presumably have an rcd on your light circuit as well as having earthed the brass plate?