Alfred Dickie’s Utility Bill

I’d like you to meet Alfred Dickie. Why? Because you’ll be surprised by what he can teach us about our energy choices.

I came across Alfred’s utility bill at an antique fair, the type of place where small treasures are begging to tell big stories. Leafing through tattered magazines, faded sheet music and other bric-a-brac, I found a bluish piece of paper from the Halifax Electric Tramway Company. My interest was piqued when I saw the date: November 30, 1915.

A rubber stamp with a 1915 date often has a fascinating story absorbed in its faded ink. I’ve long been captivated by the period between 1880 and 1920. It was the glory era of energy transitions: we traded loyal horses for emotionless cars, noisy steam engines for smelly diesel motors and glowing lanterns for electric light bulbs. And don’t forget the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. By 1915, this momentum had pushed the early adoption of electrical grids and petroleum products. With each trade-in, our lifestyles and economy changed immeasurably.

Alfred’s 1915 utility bill gives us a glimpse into the era when coal gas was a new fuel piped into homes for heating, cooking and lighting — a luxury afforded only by the wealthy.

Turning over Alfred’s bill, I nodded — drawings of a stove and a water heater confirmed I had something of value. Flipping it back, I noted Alfred’s particulars: he lived at 95 South Park Street in Halifax. Having visited Nova Scotia’s capital many times, I imagined his house was in the late-Victorian style: a foundation of brick or concrete shouldering a couple of stories, with a covered front porch.

Handwritten meter readings recorded that Alfred had consumed “10 hundred cubic feet” of heating fuel in November 1915. For this, he was obliged to pay $1.25 “within 20 DAYS or Service will be Discontinued,” according to the rather terse Halifax Electric Tramway Company.

Thankfully, he paid within three days. His speedy December 2 payment, acknowledged by a PAID rubber stamp, earned him a reward of 25¢. Nice, I thought: pay early and earn a 20% discount. These days the mentality is reversed: pay late and earn a penalty. I wonder, When in our energy history did the attitude shift from carrot to stick?

A buck went a long way a hundred years ago, so I didn’t know if Alfred’s bill was cheap or expensive for that brisk Atlantic month of November. Regardless, his payment of $1 seemed fitting because, a century later, my antique dealer was asking the same amount — for a piece of paper most people would have thrown out decades ago. Not me, of course.

As I flipped the bill over a few times, I pondered. Who was Alfred Dickie and what could we learn from the decisions he made a century ago? What was the Halifax Electric Tramway Company and why was it so keen to promote gas? Relative to today, was $1.25 a little or a lot to pay for gas?

I looked up and said, “I’ll take it.”

The soppy-faced antique dealer accepted my dollar without hesitation. That dollar bought me a treasure trove for my curiosity.

Related Vignettes

THE LUMBER KING

I had occasion to go to Halifax in 2014. Alfred’s bill in hand, I found some answers. South Park Street is still there, green and leafy as it doubtless was in 1915. However, Number 95 is no longer, most likely demolished during construction of the Victoria General Hospital.

Alfred Dickie was a prominent Canadian businessman, nicknamed the Lumber King of Nova Scotia. After attending Dalhousie College in Halifax, he returned home to Stewiacke and went into the lumber business. He wasn’t the first to see value in Nova Scotia’s forests, but historical accounts suggest he was one of the best at harvesting the renewable resource.

Alfred’s operations grew rapidly. He bought up three large forest properties (18,000 acres here, 65,000 there) and a number of sawmills and launched several pulp and lumber companies. He even owned a few steamships. Soon, the Lumber King became the leading exporter of Nova Scotia forestry products.

But his fortunes didn’t last. Like so many capitalists in a volatile commodity business, Alfred overextended himself. Bad luck — fires and harsh weather, aggravated by a lack of insurance — and a tough business cycle contributed to his downfall. The banks took over and Alfred lost all but one share of his company’s equity.

Despite his misfortunes, he remained a director of his holdings … and was evidently paid well to do so. In the early 1900s, his salary was recorded as $833 per month. Now, $800 doesn’t sound like much but, adjusted for 100 years of inflation, Alfred’s annual income today would have been almost $250,000 — not bad for a bankrupt CEO. He was hardly suffering financially and, like any determined entrepreneur, he worked to recover his wealth and station. In 1912, Alfred went into semi-retirement and moved into that Victorian house on South Park Street.

Knowing that Alfred was wealthy through boom and bust gave me valuable context for his $1.25 gas bill. I discovered that while he was earning his $833 monthly paycheck, those Nova Scotia workers who sported overalls and lunch buckets earned 25¢ an hour — less than $45 a month. While a dollar for piped-in gas was loose change from Alfred’s pocket, it would have been a considerable chunk out of the wallet of any hardworking fisherman, bricklayer or carpenter.

But the numbers weren’t adding up.

I returned to the amount of gas — “10 hundred cubic feet,” or 1,000, as it would be written today. A modern North American household with a furnace, water heater and stove consumes between 8 and 10 times that much gas. Alfred was either miserly with his energy use (particularly so in the cold month of November) or his house had only one or two small gas-fired appliances. The latter made more sense.

According to the bill, the Halifax Electric Tramway Company offered “Gas Appliances of all kinds.” Because Alfred’s usage was so low, I suspected he’d installed either a stove or a water heater. Neither appliance consumed much compared to a gas furnace heating an entire home. In fact, gas furnaces were not common in 1915 because most homes were still heated by burning wood. So Alfred’s low-volume utility bill represented an early stage of transition to the gas era in Halifax.


Alfred’s low-volume utility bill represented an early stage of transition to the gas era in Halifax.

The other side of Alfred’s bill advertised the superlative virtues of coal gas — and promoted some appliances while it was at it.

NOW WE’RE COOKING WITH GAS!

The history of the Halifax Electric Tramway Company is intriguing. This contemporary energy utility came into being through a series of corporate consolidations. Three entrepreneurs — Benjamin Franklin Pearson, Frederick Stark Pearson (no relation) and Henry Melville Whitney — foresaw opportunity in providing citizens with alternatives to chopping wood, riding horses and burning candles. What an incredible time to have business acumen. I imagined the trio’s excitement as they realized they could make a fortune converting Halifax to the modernity of trams, electrical appliances and heat from gasified coal.

Thanks to their foresight, Pearson, Pearson and Whitney did indeed get rich, and no wonder. Think about what they were offering: instead of going outside in the cold, finding your ax, chopping a tree trunk and hauling in the wood (which would take several minutes to light and still longer to give off heat), you could simply turn the gas valve and flick a match. Today we take the luxury of instant, hassle-free energy for granted. Yet, in 1915, it was life-altering. A gas flame wasn’t just faster and more convenient; it was clean and touted as safe, without the nuisance of a wood fire’s smoke and leftover cinders.

With that lure, the well-to-do citizens of Halifax had good reason to hop on the city’s electric tram and travel down to “Gas Lane,” where they could visit the small showroom of the Halifax Electric Tramway Company. I could just imagine a young sales buck in that showroom, coaxing families like the Dickies into installing a gas line and buying a shiny new cast-iron stove. The confident salesman probably added, “May I interest you in a water heater too, sir?” Seeing the benefits, the Dickie household must have been easily convinced to switch from wood to gas, and presumably from lanterns to light bulbs too.

By the 19th century, stoves burning wood, charcoal or coal were common. However, the convenience of piped-in gas was a strong lure for consumers, who quickly adopted this new fuel.

In fact, the marketing claims on the back of Alfred’s bill were compacted into four superlatives: “Cheapest, Safest, Cleanest, Quickest.” Not “Cheap, Safe, Clean, Quick,” not even “Cheaper, Safer, Cleaner, Quicker.” No, the Halifax Electric Tramway Company’s gas appliances apparently topped all other energy alternatives.

It goes without saying that consumers still want energy to be the cheapest, safest, cleanest and quickest. We want affordable energy that doesn’t pick our wallets, safe energy that doesn’t harm our person, clean energy that doesn’t degrade our planet and quick energy that doesn’t test our patience for warmth, light or transport at the flick of a switch or turn of a key.

“Cheapest” has become even cheaper for people like you and me. Adjusting for inflation, we pay about one-third for our gas of what Alfred paid for his. The delivery of our gas is safer and more reliable too, especially after most utilities migrated from coal gas to natural gas in the 1930s.

My attention turned to society’s present-day situation: if, a century ago, we had already transitioned to the “cheapest, safest, cleanest, quickest” energy source, where does that put us today?

I think we can agree that consumer attitudes have hardened considerably since Alfred’s bill. In the face of unsettling issues like climate change, environmental protection and not-in-my-backyard resistance, the list of superlative adjectives we require in our energy sources is growing. Now we’re looking for such claims as “lowest carbon,” “fewest pipelines” and “greatest social conscience.”

That thought left me unsettled. I put Alfred’s bill on my desk and stared out the window. Power lines, street lamps and cars were unavoidably in my view. Surely, the list of required superlatives for our energy can’t grow ad infinitum, or even beyond the length of what can be advertised on a simple energy bill. Yet why do we seem to think the list can grow?


If a century ago we had already transitioned to the “cheapest, safest, cleanest, quickest” energy source, where does that put us today?

UNPACK THE ISSUES BEHIND THIS STORY

Dig in deeper with Energyphile Sessions. You’ll get this story, related Q&As and a facilitator’s guide. Find out more.

TRADING BLISTERS FOR CONVENIENCE

Picking up that blue paper again, I realized something big had happened when the people of Halifax transitioned to direct-to-the-home energy services. Utilities like the Halifax Electric Tramway Company coaxed citizens into surrendering a primal survival chore: going out and getting their own supplies.

When someone like Alfred Dickie chopped his own wood, brought it into his house and lit his kindling, he was in control of his energy, from the wood pile to the stove. He knew if he was running out of logs, if his fuel was not cut to size or if it was too wet to burn. By necessity, people of his era had a vital connection to their energy sources, especially wood. They knew how to use it wisely and were acutely aware of changes in its availability. Any incompetence or oversight could lead to cold meals at best, a family freezing to death in the middle of winter at worst.

Maybe I’d stared at the bill too long, but I had a revelatory thought. The clerk who stamped Alfred’s bill with a dull rubber thud marked a symbolic moment, when consumers and suppliers lost a shared sense of responsibility for society’s energy needs.

Over the last century, switches, valves and thermostats have made our lives convenient. But those knobs and dials have also pushed energy sources “upstream,” out of our homes, and out of our minds, to distant horizons where pipelines and wires terminate. To be sure, separating source from usage has led to comfort and prosperity. But when we ceased getting blisters from a sweaty ax handle, we unwittingly became detached from the complexities of getting heat and light at the flick of a switch.

From the suppliers’ perspective, I note the lesson of Alfred’s bill in the difficulties today’s energy companies face with securing approvals to build things like pipelines, power plants or even wind farms. Sure, they are all regulated into supplying the safest and cleanest according to government specs. And each competes against the other to be the cheapest and quickest. But whatever they do, companies discover that being the best is still never good enough for the most demanding fringes of the populace. What will narrow this functional imbalance between suppliers and demanders?

Okay, I admit that the gap to achieving “best” is vague. That’s intentional, because I can’t predict what will satisfy everyone’s needs, short of a perpetual motion machine that delivers free energy, forever, with no pollution.

I do know that a realistic “best” offering will have to come from energy suppliers and consumers rebuilding a common mindset. We don’t live in a world where the driver of an SUV has to work on a drilling rig to bring a barrel of oil out of the ground. But we can live in a world where oil and pipeline companies interact better with consumers, giving the person behind the steering wheel a better feel for the complexities of getting gasoline to the pump. Such interaction would benefit any company, government or investment group trying to introduce or build a new energy system, renewable or otherwise.

Power lines are so ubiquitous we barely see them, nor do we give much thought to where the energy they carry comes from. They’re a reminder of the distance between supplier and consumer.

COME TOGETHER

At the start of this story, I suggested you might be surprised by what we can learn from Alfred Dickie’s utility bill. Alfred chose to transition from his wood-based system to the latest source, gas. By signing up with the Halifax Electric Tramway Company, he outsourced his barehanded duties and gained convenience.

Today, we take that convenience for granted, and have all but relinquished our ability to provide our own energy. While we don’t need to start chopping our own wood again, I believe that to make truly responsible choices in the future, we must all — consumers and suppliers — reacquaint ourselves with the challenges of demanding and providing superlative-laden energy.

From my career in energy, I know it’s not realistic for consumers to take a crash course in supply-side economics. I also know that most suppliers have lost touch with their end-use customers. Nevertheless, where there are business problems, there are winners waiting with solutions.

I made another business trip to Halifax in July 2015, almost a hundred years to the day after Alfred’s utility bill was issued. I had some time before my flight home, so I rented a car and drove an hour north to the Pine Grove Cemetery in Stewiacke, where Alfred was laid to rest in 1929. A large personality in life, he accordingly had the tallest gravestone in the cemetery. The golden-tinged granite seemed to insist that he’d died a wealthy man.

Ironic, I thought: someone who’d made so much money selling wood — the Lumber King himself — was a lead adopter of a fuel rival. That salesman on Gas Lane must have been pretty good at gaining Alfred’s trust. That, and having the lure of cheapest, safest, cleanest and quickest to back up his pitch.

It just goes to show that those who understand energy superlatives, and how to build trust around them, will be the leaders of the future.

In death, as in life, Alfred looms large.

WHAT CAN THIS 100-YEAR-OLD UTILITY BILL TEACH YOU ABOUT ENERGY TODAY?

Sometimes a small curiosity can lead to a discussion of big issues. Alfred Dickie’s utility bill is such a curiosity. The questions in this Energyphile Session will get you talking about:

  • Where our energy comes from
  • The role that wealth plays in the adoption of new energy systems
  • The trade-offs among the benefits we expect from our energy supplies

SESSION No. 3