Artifact Corner: Episode 26 – Historic Lighting

Hi everyone, and welcome back to another Artifact Corner. Today we will be looking at a beautiful pair of Victorian Candlesticks and a glass oil lamp. The candlesticks are metal with a painted ceramic middle. Each one has a handle, making them easier to carry around the home. The oil lamp is blown glass, and has a hole in the top and a pierced slit in the side. The hole in the top is for filling the oil lamp, and the slit in the side is where a wick would be placed. While the candlesticks are designed to be portable, the oil lamp is not. These are just a couple of pieces that we have in our collections that were designed to light the home. When the home was built in 1797, they obviously did not have electricity, and lighting was essential for everyday life.

So, let’s take a look at how people have been lighting their homes throughout our history. Around 20,000 years ago we have archaeological evidence of stone oil lamps. They were shallow stone bowls carved with a small groove in the side to hold a wick. They burned animal fats in them. The fats smelled unpleasant, and the fat smoked quite a bit when burned. Overall, not an awfully pleasant way to light your home. The Romans are thought to be the inventors of the dipped candle. With a dipped taper candle, you can throw off much more light than the small stone, smokey oil lamps. In the Middle Ages, beeswax candles were the most desirable form of light, but were terribly expensive. They not only gave off a clean clear light, but the smell is very pleasant. The only people who could really afford them though were the monasteries, and the super wealthy. The average person used what was known as a rushlight. A rush light was a rush or reed soaked in melted animal fat. When it cooled and dried it could be lit and would produce a bright, albeit smokey and smelly flame. The rushlights also burned far faster than a beeswax candle, but they were cheep to make, and therefore commonly used.

In 1780 French chemist Ami Argand invented a new type of oil lamp that could produce as much as 10 candles worth of light. This style was incredibly popular, in both table top and wall mounted designs. In 1807 gas lights were coming into common use, but mostly for outdoor lighting. It wasn’t until the 1840’s that some wealthy homes had gaslights installed. Gas lighting was novel, and as it turns out incredibly dangerous. The gas lights emitted carbon monoxide, which is both odorless and colorless, and therefore incredibly hard to detect.

In 1882 Thomas Edison helped to form the Edison Electric Illuminating Company. This helped the wealthy of Manhattan have safer lighting options. It was slow to take off though, and by 1925, only half of Americans had electricity in their homes. The other half, still lighting the dark nights with lamps, candles, or gas lights.

Our home was built in late 1700’s, and the whole time it was a family home, it was lit by flame. Rooms in homes built before the use of electric light often tried to capitalize on natural light. Often they built with large windows, and many of them. They also relied on fire for heat, and fireplaces were another source of light in the evenings, so a centrally placed hearth also helped to brighten a room. These candlesticks were clearly meant to be moved around, shining a light for the person holding it. The oil lamp was likely used on a desk, or table to help someone writing a letter or maybe playing a game. We hope you enjoyed this look back and found it illuminating, pun intended. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,