Fiat Lux

Until the advent of recorded audio books, it was impossible to read in the dark. And it’s not wholly a coincidence that books became more widespread as lighting technology improved. Cheap paper and the printing press were also important, but the books that were produced had to be consumed, and that requires light.

The Sun, of course, provides enough light to read by, but all but the wealthiest people were obliged to work during daylight hours; there was no time for reading. Firelight is suitable as well, if the fire is large enough, but hearth fires create a lot of smoke, and a chimneyed fireplace is so inefficient that many fireplaces stood empty for long periods of time or burned so low that close, detail oriented work like reading or sewing was difficult.

Perhaps it says something about the human psyche, and our love for story, that we persisted in inventing new and better ways of illuminating our books. Or people needed controlled light for other tasks, and reading was a side benefit.

The simplest lamp is a dish filled with oil. A wick, usually of plant fiber, rests in the fuel and is set alight. For thousands of years, these lamps were the best lighting technology that was available to people. There’s some evidence that prehistoric man painted his caves with the help of this type of lamp, and the Dutch painter Judith Leyster depicts a woman of the mid-1600s sewing by the light of such a lamp.

Then there were rushlights. Rushes grow in damp areas, and must be harvested at the right time of year, then dried, peeled, and dipped in fat (any kind will do). The pith soaks up the fat like a wick, and the resulting light burns for hours. In the late 1700s, eleven hours of rushlight cost a halfpenny; the same price for two hours of candlelight. Rushes were so commonly used that special holders were made for them- a metal clamp on a stand that held the rush firmly at a forty-five degree angle, the position that produces the most efficient light.

Rushes are a low-investment, low-yield technology, and with the rise of the middle classes, something better was needed. Enter: candles (actually a very old technology, but the western world needed to become fairly rich before they could be widespread).

Candles can be made most simply through repeatedly dipping a cloth wick in a vessel of wax or tallow, then allowing each successive layer to dry. This is a slow process, and candle molds, which work best with beeswax, became popular in places wealthy enough to produce beeswax candles. Wax also smells better than tallow, and takes scented oils such as bayberry much more easily.

But candles are expensive, and until improvements in wick making, needed regular maintenance if they were not to extinguish themselves. In the 1880s, a year’s worth of candles for a small family cost about thirty pounds in Britain, nearly three times the cost of gas lighting. Is it any wonder that upper class Brits preferred candles as a status symbol for many decades, while cheaper gas lighting became the province of the middle classes?

Gas lighting was first adopted in the late seventeen hundreds, and became popular in urban areas, particularly in Britain, in the eighteen hundreds. It was relatively inexpensive- gas is a byproduct of coal, which was already fueling the Industrial Revolution. In the 1880s, the operation of one gas jet cost about a pound in Britain, at a time when a hundred pounds a year was enough to support a small family in a lower-middle class lifestyle. Gas is also corrosive to metals, uses up enormous amounts of oxygen (which could be uncomfortable in a closed room) and damages cloth and paper. But it was better than expensive oil lamps or candles, which could be knocked over and needed constant maintenance- cleaning, in the case of lamps, and trimming of candle wicks.

Gas was thought at the time to be an astonishingly bright light. One gas jet gave approximately the same light as a 25-watt light bulb, but because people were used to less light, they worried about the damage to ‘small brain and eyes’ of children, caused by the ‘glitter and harsh glare’ of gas light. Gas lighting was common in kitchens, nurseries, and corridors, where the advantages of safety and brightness outweighed the faint distaste most middle class people had for ‘modern’ lighting. Factories and shops were also early adopters of gas light, though many shops found that placing the lights outside the shop window was best, so the fumes didn’t irritate customers and destroy merchandise.

Electricity came on the scene around 1879 at the Albert Hall and became more prominent in 1881, when the Savoy Theatre used incandescent electric lighting, and for the first time, the lights surrounding the audience were dimmed during the performance. The British upper classes were relatively early adopters of electricity, because it was expensive and difficult to produce, and therefore a status indicator. Americans were also enthusiastic about electricity because it required less labor to maintain than gas or oil lamps.

Electric lighting also allowed people to have their own private spaces within the home, if they chose. When the entire house is wired for electricity, the cost of illuminating an extra room is negligible. Previously, people congregated around the one or two candles, oil lamps, or gas jets they could afford, bringing their sewing, reading, or other work. Reading, in the time before electricity, was often a group activity; one person would read aloud while the rest of the family did their other tasks.

The development of the electrical grid was slow and uneven- parts of rural Britain were not electrified until the 1960s. The Aran Islands of Ireland weren’t hooked up to the national grid until 1997; until then, people made do with petrol powered generators or more primitive forms of lighting.

And though domestic lighting technology seems to follow a straight line from rushes, to candles, to gas, to electricity, that was rarely the case. Most households used a combination of two or more forms of illumination until the mid-1900s, balancing economics with safety concerns, the usefulness of more modern light, and the desire for display. Domestic history is often complex, and what worked in one place and time was not always reasonable in other situations.

Entire books have been written about the development of lighting technology; this is merely meant as a primer on the subject. The following books have been helpful:

The Making of Home by Judith Flanders

Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Lesley Adkins

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Life in a Medieval City by Frances and Joseph Gies

How to be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman

Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders

 

If you know of other books that might be, ah, illuminating, please mention them in the comments. I love reading about domestic history (as you might have guessed).

15 comments

  1. Loved this post actually – since I write fiction set in the 19th century, I am well aware of the wax-candles, rushlight, oil lamp, gaslight, electric light thing. And how … dark the outside – and inside was in the 19th century generally.

  2. We take our light so much for granted. It’s only when it gets taken away that we realize how dependant we are. I know the once or twice a year we get a power outage around here is always a pain.

    1. In A Diabolical Bargain, I had a scene underground. I had to keep remembering that it wasn’t a subway, and since he has no lamp, he’s fumbling around in the DARK.

      I will note, however, that you can walk by starlight. (Also there are a lot more stars when you don’t have competition for them.)

      1. “you can walk by starlight”

        Walking away from the campfire, it takes about 15 minutes before you can see pretty well by starlight. Physiological studies say it takes 20 to 30 minutes for your eyes to become fully dark-adapted. We learned about night-walking in the Boy Scouts Order of the Arrow, drawing from American Indian rituals. Pretty cool to be gliding along a trail by starlight. If the moon comes up, it is almost like day.

        1. Though I read an article where a man was doing some world building and there were Sun people, who were born by day, and Moon people, born by night, and the muttering noise is me saying that the moon spends as much time in the day sky as the night .

          An error an earlier writer would not have made — they relied on the moon to tell the seasons, and also the full moon made travel so much easier that you kept track of it.

  3. I wondered a bit why you didn’t mention whale oil and spermaceti oil, and the saving of the whales by the development of the oil industry… so I went googling in case my memory was unreliable. And I discovered that whale oil was probably a far more American deal. In fact I found a fascinating article about using spermaceti oil in lighthouses in the US https://www.mysticseaport.org/voyage/files/2015/05/Vogel_morgan.pdf . It mentions in passing the use of such oils in households and their replacement with vegetable oils and kerosene.

    In keeping with my work on sourdough during the time of the virus, I’d almost like to try a rushlight. I am also reminded of the button lamp in Laura Ingalls Wilder, possibly in the Long Winter.

    1. I skimmed over oil lamps mostly because I didn’t want this to turn into a book. They were more popular in America, but were also used sometimes in Europe. The problem with early oil lamps is that kerosene, the cheapest fuel, has a very low flash point if not processed with modern methods. Paraffin was another cheap fuel, but had an off-putting smell.

      Mystic Seaport is a cool place; I grew up about an hour away, and the school liked to take us on field trips to there and Mystic Aquarium.

  4. Fiat Lux: Italian sports car soap! Bwaha!

    I know some trivia about fires and candles. Which is, how do you light a candle (or an oil lamp!) from a fire in the fireplace? If you take the beeswax candle down to the fire, most likely it will fall in and get burnt up. Non-zero chance you will get burnt too. You can imagine how that’s going to be, if you think about it.

    Answer, you use a “spill.” Which is a long curled-up wood shaving made by a spill plane.

    https://www.popularwoodworking.com/article/the-all-but-forgotten-spill-plane/

    This is one of those lost pieces of genius that somebody thought up long ago because they were sick to death of screwing around with straws or twigs or whatever else got used for the job. Take a piece of firewood that’s kinda straight, run it over the plane a few times, then go light all the lamps and candles in the house. Easy.

    1. Spills can also be made from a twist of paper, which in the days before municipal garbage collection was a good way to get rid of old paper (it was also used as TP). Some people even made decorative spills in odd shapes, like feathers, and gave them as gifts.

      1. Agatha Christie in “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” had a vase on the fireplace mantle containing paper spills. (That’s my source of historical knowledge.)

  5. pre WWII, gramps had a house lit with calcium carbide/acetylene lamps. whole house piped for the gas generated by dripping water on calcium carbide.

    1. Notice that even having a lamp, it could be so much of a bother to light that you invent stuff like that.

  6. There’s an interesting novel, Oil for the Lamps of China, about a sales rep for an American company (obviously modeled on Standard Oil) who job it is to get the Chinese to adopt kerosene for lighting. Also made into a mediocre movie.

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