The history of domestic lighting has been governed by economics, but also by snobbery and tradition, and occasionally by a dangerous desire for novelty. So wrote Lucy Worsley.
If, for one moment, you think the subject of domestic lighting is dull then just think about life without artificial light; and remember, somewhere in all that was a basic need, which has remained ever since artificial light was first discovered – snobbery and novelty came later. Before then, changes and improvements to the differing forms of lighting were necessary, but this was a gradual process, evolving over many centuries. It was not until the late 19th century when one of the biggest changes in domestic life emerged – the development of, and from, electricity; a ‘miracle’ that happened from the moment its power was switched on.
For starters – take rushlights. For centuries past, they were the poor person’s light-source of choice. They were made by soaking the dried pith of the rush plant in fat or grease, building up the layers so as to create a rather scrawny candle. For several centuries rushlights were a common source of artificial light for poor people throughout the British Isles. They were extremely inexpensive to make, as pointed out by English essayist William Cobbett who once wrote:
“This rushlight cost almost nothing to produce and was believed to give a better light than some poorly dipped candles.”
These long, gently-curving lights were balanced in special holders, and to double the illumination, both top and bottom would be ignited – ‘burning the candle at both ends’ as we still say! One of the earliest printed descriptions of rushlights was written by English antiquary John Aubrey in 1673; then in 1789, Rev. Gilbert White gave a detailed description of rushlight making in ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne’.
*The boat-shaped vessel (above), used to hold the fat etc. for coating rushlights, was sometimes called a ‘grissit’.
It was, in fact, well into the third or fourth decade of the 19th century that many labouring families could afford nothing better than rushlights; made at home and, apart from fire-light, had been the one means of lighting for all the preceding generations. In the summer, the common rushes were collected by women and children and peeled to leave all but a narrow strip, which was left to strengthen the pith; these were hung up in bunches to dry. Fat of any kind was collected, though fat from salted meat was avoided if at all possible. It was melted in boat-shaped grease-pans that stood on their three short legs in the hot ashes in front of the fire. They were of cast-iron made for the purpose. The bunches, each of about a dozen peeled rushes, were drawn through the grease and then put aside to dry:
“You peels away the rind from the peth, leaving only a little strip of rind. And when the rushes is dry you dips ’em through the grease, keeping ’em well under. And my mother, she always laid hers to dry in a bit of hollow bark. Mutton fat’s the best; it dries hardest.”
*These two delightful images of making rush candles at home, showing the rushes being peeled and soaked in salt-free melted lard. Photos: By Geoff Charles 1909-2002. Copyright: National Library of Wales.
Rushlight holders were mostly of the same pattern, particularly as to the way the jaws held the rush; the chief variation being in the case of the later spring holders – in these, the jaws were horizontal; although, the usual and older patterns had the jaws upright, their only difference being in the shape and treatment of the free end of the movable jaw and the shape of the wooden block. The counter-balance weight was formed either into a ‘knob’ or a ‘curl’. Occasionally, it had the shape of a candle-socket and later, when tallow dipped candles came into use, the counterbalance was made into an actual candle-socket. There were several kinds of tall rushlight holders to stand on the floor, both of wood and iron. The iron ones nearly always had a candle socket in addition, indicating a later date, and the same kind of spring arrangement to ‘allow of the light being adjusted to the right height. Unless all of iron they nearly always had the cross-shaped block for a foot.
Apart from the effort of actually making rushlights, which was a greasy job, many would say that the work of servicing the lighting, thereafter, was not suited to the fingers of the mother at her needlework. ‘Mend the light,’ or ‘mend the rush‘ was the signal for one of the children to put up a new length. A rushlight, fifteen inches long, would burn for about half-an-hour. Then, two crossed pins would extinguish a rushlight and often, when cottagers were going to bed, they would lay a lighted rushlight on the edge of an oak chest or chest of drawers, leaving an inch over the edge. It would burn up to the oak and then go out. The edges of old furniture were often found to be burnt into shallow grooves from this practice.
Rush-candles, on the other hand, should not be confused with rushlight. A rush-candle is an ordinary candle (a block or cylinder of tallow or wax) that uses a piece of rush as a wick. Rushlights, by contrast, are simply wicks which were not separate from the fuel. As for the expression ‘the game’s not worth the candle’; this implies that lighting a candle felt like burning money itself. Then there was the twenty minutes, a familiar unit of time, for which one rushlight lasted; this often needed to be exploited, like the housewife who might have invited village neighbours over to share a rushlight for an interval of gossip, or hurried knitting.
Although candles are one of the oldest light sources, they have not changed fundamentally throughout history. Every candle is basically a mass of wax or some other fuel through which is embedded a wick which, when lit, produces light – Simple! They are still used for illumination, although sometimes in the past were used as a means of getting a degree of heating. Early nomadic tribes were first to make candles in Europe and these were made from tallow or animal fat because olive oil became almost non-existent when the Roman Empire fell. Thus, candles made from tallow were to spread across Europe and into Britain.
It was like this until the 18th century when whaling began. It was found that spermaceti, crystallized oil of sperm whale, could replace tallow. It produced brighter light and was available in great quantities and did not produce a bad smell – unlike tallow. After that, some other materials were found that did not involve the hunting of whales – like colza oil which was derived from turnip and oil made from rapeseed that also gave smokeless light. In the 1850s, James Young refined paraffin wax by distilling coal. Paraffin wax is white wax that burns clearly, did not have bad odour and was cheap so it could be produced in great quantities. Because of that, it became common commodity in households.
However, it was only the rich who could afford the profusion of beeswax candles. In large households, a daily ration of candles was often included in employment conditions, and the fate of candle-ends was hotly disputed: they were the preserve of senior servants, who would sell them to supplement their wages. Yet there was another, cheaper alternative. The tallow candle was made from animal fat, ideally sheep or cow, because ‘that of hogs …… gives an ill smell, and a thick black smoke’. The art of creating the longest-lasting blend was very valuable, and in 1390 tallow chandlery was listed among the foremost crafts of London. Tallow candles had a horrible brown colour and made a dreadful meaty stink. Despite this, desperate people would eat them in times of famine for the calories they contained.
Apart from the unpleasant smell, the great drawback to tallow candles was the need to snuff. Their wicks had to be trimmed every few minutes or they smoked. And, in an age of candles, fire-light and timber-framed houses, accidents were common. Once in seventeenth-century London a servant named Obadiah illicitly took a candle up to his bedchamber. There it fell over and burnt ‘half a yard of the sheet’. But the quick-thinking Obadiah woke a fellow servant, and together they ‘pissed out the fire as well as they could’.
The Interiors of the rich, lit by candle-light, were designed to magnify the limited light available. The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles was the first room in history to be illuminated to something approaching the light-levels we’d find safe and pleasant today. Its ubiquitous glass reflected candle-light so effectively that the French court began for the first time to hold regular evening parties. In prosperous Georgian drawing rooms, there was likewise silver or sparkle everywhere. The gold rims of plates, the silver of keyholes, even the metallic embroidery on waistcoats: all were intended to aid the eye and maximise candlelight. In fact, a lady’s silver dress had the effect of making its wearer gleam.
The light, bright colours of candle-lit Georgian interiors would be replaced by rich, dark hues in the Victorian age. These Deeper tones helped hide the soot produced by oil lamps, which began to replace candles in the later eighteenth century. ‘I have seen houses almost filled with the smoke from lamps, and the stench of the oil’, one footman recollected. In grand houses, lamps required a new room for the cleaning of their glass shades. The Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle had a trifling 400 for his hard-working servants to polish.
Yet the oil lamp would soon be superseded by gas, and if we are looking for someone to blame for the substance, it may as well be William Murdoch. We know that the flammability of coal gas had long been established and in 1735, Dr John Clayton of Wigan had entertained the members of the Royal Society in London by telling them of how he had burned a few pieces coal, released its “spirit”, and captured it in animal bladders; then, to the great amusement of his friends, set it alight. However, it was Murdoch who, in Britain at least, pioneered the practical use of this party trick for the purposes of lighting. As an early steam buff, he worked out how to produce and store coal gas so that, by 1792, he was able to light his house in Redruth, Cornwall. Darkness – our primordial dread – had lost its dominion with the emergence of gas lighting.
Gas made its debut in London when an entrepreneur, named Frederick Windsor, organised a public demonstration of the new lighting for George III’s birthday in 1807. People both marvelled at and feared the properties of this ‘illuminated air’. Windsor reassured potential clients that gas is even ‘more congenial to our lungs than vital air’. By the 1840s, gas began to make a tentative appearance in the urban home. Gradually it became a middle-class must-have. A contributor to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine even recommended that parties ‘must always be given by gas light ….… if it be daylight outside, you must close the shutters and draw the curtains, the better to show off your ‘gasoliers’. But that was not all, gas must have provided a quite stunning improvement to people’s ability to read, write or sew in the evenings with minimal effort.
Nevertheless, gas had many drawbacks, despite its greater illumination qualities. There were frequent explosions, and it replaced the oxygen in the air with black and noxious deposits. The aspidistra, became a hugely popular plant in the home because it survived well in oxygen-starved conditions. Victorian ladies frequently fainted partly because of tight-lacing, but also because of a lack of oxygen in their gas-lit drawing rooms.
As an aside: – Many middle-class houses traditionally had a pendant light by the bay window of a bedroom. It was not there to principally illuminate a dressing table, but to prevent a person’s shadow from being cast on to the closed curtains when undressing, and thus being seen from the street. Instead, the shadow would be cast only on to the interior walls and away from ‘prying eyes’. away from the outside. This innovation was not confined to the gas era, but carried on with the emergence of electricity and well into the 20th century.
The arrival of electricity in the 1880s caused quite a stir with those who could afford the installation, for it was immensely expensive – and therefore terribly chic! A light bulb would cost the same as the average week’s wages, and you needed your own home generator. Several Fifth Avenue millionaires installed generators in their houses in New York of the 1880’s, and Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt even went to a costume ball as an Electric Light. But these early enthusiasts always ran the risk of accidents; like the very same Mrs Vanderbilt who, after her electrical system caught fire, not only panicked, but had it taken out.
Cost was not the only reason that the widespread adoption of electricity was delayed for many years; another significant factor was that there was no such thing as a standard generators – different brands had different outputs. This meant that many towns had differing currents, and manufacturers were reluctant to develop light fittings because there was no uniform national market for their products. It was not until the National Grid was created in the 1930s that electricity achieved ubiquity. Of course, this bright white light, which saw off the night and was enormously convenient, ensured that we lost something significant: the art of entertaining ourselves in low light levels, conversation, singing and storytelling. All these, and probably much more, were all the casualties of this modern technology.
Jekyll, Gertrude ‘Old West Surrey: Some Notes and Memories’. London: Longmans, Green, & Co, 1904.
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