Let There Be Light

It’s early evening as I write this and getting a little dim in my office…so just now I leaned forward and with a small movement of my hand turned on the lamp on my desk. Lovely, clear light now floods this part of the room, strong enough to read by several feet away. Electricity—it’s a beautiful thing. Had this been 1810 rather than 2020, however, I would have had to do a great deal more to achieve this amount of light.

In England in the early 19th century, light came from fire. Period. That fire might flicker and bounce at the end of a candle—perhaps a tallow candle made from sheep or beef fat, which tended to smoke and sputter, could lend an odor of eau de barnyard to a room, and not give forth very much light. Tallow candles required snuffing—that is, their wicks had to periodically be trimmed as the candles burned in order for the candle to burn properly—with snuffers, which looked like an odd pair of scissors.

Or it might shine from a more expensive beeswax candle and provide a much steadier, longer-lasting light that didn’t require snuffing and smelled much more pleasant than a sheepy tallow candle.

Candles might sit in holders on a table or desk, singly or in many-branched candelabras. Or they might be in sconces attached to the wall, perhaps with a plate of polished metal or a mirror to reflect and increase the light they gave. Or they might perch in a chandelier (from the French word for candle) and give light from above…but alas, also drip on people and objects below them.

However, candles were expensive and heavily taxed—one pence a pound for tallow candles, 3 ½ pence a pound for beeswax. So for the very poorest, their light might come from rushlights—basically a rush (a marsh plant) dipped in drippings or some other greasy substance—that could be made for free, but didn’t provide much illumination.

Or the fire that was giving you light might come from an oil lamp, in its most basic form consisting of a chamber to hold some type of oil and a wick that served to draw up the oil and burn…but by the 19th century had grown fairly sophisticated, with special holders to lengthen and shorten the wick and so provide more or less light. Plant oils like olive oil and palm oil might be used, but whale oil was probably the most popular oil for lighting—not only in houses, but in businesses, theaters, and on the streets, where lamplighters made their rounds every evening and morning to light and then extinguish streetlamps.

But all that would change when, one day, His Royal Highness the Prince Regent got gas. I’ll tell you about that next time.






Let There Be Light — 9 Comments

  1. Wicks are pretty sophisticated in and of themselves–properly braided, the top curls under as it burns, providing more even light.

  2. Among the many chores it was expected the daughters in the family perform for the family would be the care and tending of the candle wicks and wax during the hours they would be used in the room the family gathered in for an hour or so after dark.

    This continued up until the age of electricity when a house getting wired and able to join the grid stopped using its kerosene lamps. This didn’t happen until quite late — 1920s — out in the homesteading region of my family. We also kept the kerosene lamps for the many power outage events due to thunderstorms, tornadoes and blizzards.

    • Thinking about the above a lot today as Isaias barrels down upon us. They Say this AM it won’t be as bad as Sandy — though last night the winds were certainly expected to match those of Hurricane Sandy back in October, 2012. A large part of the lower city flooded and lost power for days — the ConEd Transformer on Union Square blew out. Not only were people in the dark, they froze. These are the times one wants a kerosene lamp. (We’d evacuated… to New Orleans.)

  3. When I worked in an historical house museum, we had on display a ship’s oil lamp. A tiny pewter thing with 3 wicks. Seems that the addition of wicks increased the amount of light exponentially!

    The expense of lighting a house meant close family time in the evenings. Something we don’t see much of nowadays. Surly teenagers couldn’t escape to their individual rooms to play video games or text their friends, they were stuck with the family learning the art of civilized conversation and maybe parlor games.

  4. I still have the oil lamp that my mother did her homework by. It has given much emergency light over the decades when the power goes out.
    I often give thanks to the gods of electricity when I flick a switch.

  5. My favorite film for giving that sense of how -dark- life was in the long ago is Barry Lyndon,. You’re always aware of where the candles or lamps are, and how short the range of light was.

    When writing about the Regency (and earlier times) one of the things I have to keep reminding myself: It’s dark. Everywhere. There were requirements for lighted torches in front of every dwelling–but these were ignored in the poorer parts of town, so at night the streets were -really- dark. And in what we would call tenements or apartment houses, there was rarely any light in the common areas, which meant if there were no windows into the common areas you made your way to your destination by guess and touch.

    • I remember seeing Barry Lyndon when it first came out (one of the first more “grownup” movies I went to)–and yes, I do remember being struck by the dimness. I maybe need to track it down and watch it again and see if the Suck Fairy got to it.

  6. A person who attended a Tudor era re-enactment (of Shakespeare, I believe), recounted afterward that it was blazingly obvious after why they wore these ruffs of bright white around their faces.