Next time you flick on a light switch, turning night into day, spare a thought for our ancestors whose lives were forced to shut down at sunset. Aside from the odd power cut, it’s hard to imagine having to cram work, chores and a social life into the hours of daylight.
Before electricity became available as a form of domestic indoor lighting, primitive lighting technology in all its forms relied on a naked flame, which not only caused problems ranging from bad smells, soot deposits and uncomfortable heat, but was also incredibly dangerous. So, if you’re wondering how we ever managed, prepare to be enlightened.
Rushlights: Burning the candle at both ends
For centuries, artificial light was created by making rushlights. The forerunner to candlelight, these were made by peeling off the green rind of the rush plant to reveal the inner pith. Once dried out, the pith would be dipped into any available household fat, preferably hot mutton fat, building up layers to create a type of long thin candle. Typically, these would have been around 12 inches long, with a burn time of around 15 minutes.
Local craftsmen and blacksmiths made specialist rushlight holders, many of which are now collectors’ items and to intensify the illumination, rushlights could be lit at both ends, giving rise to the saying ‘burning the candle at both ends.’
Still used in rural areas right up until the late 19th century, the 15 minute burning span became a useful unit of time which would be used to great effect and often shared, with housewives inviting neighbours to share a rushlight for a spot of speed sewing.
Tallow Candles: Smelly, smoky and edible
Whilst the Egyptians were using wicked candles as far back as 3,000 BC, Western cultures did not develop a similar product until the Middle Ages, when candles were mainly rendered from tallow (animal fat). By the 13th century, candle making was a guild craft in England and candle makers (chandlers) would go from house to house making candles from saved kitchen fats.
Tallow candles were not only an unattractive brown colour, but they also had an awful smell. Cheap to make, the best fat to use was either mutton or cow, because as one householder noted, pig fat, “gives an ill smell and a thick black smoke.” However, during times of famine the candles could be eaten by the desperate.
Beeswax Candles: Clean burning at a price
There was a major improvement with the introduction of beeswax candles, which burned cleanly with a sweet aroma, unlike the meaty stench of tallow. But these candles were expensive and only enjoyed by the wealthy. In fact, in larger households a daily candle ration was included in the job description. What’s more, in true entrepreneurial spirit, senior servants would supplement their wages by collecting and selling on all the candle ends.
“I have seen houses almost filled with the smoke from lamps, and the stench of the oil.”
In Europe, oil lamps began to replace candles during the late 18th century, but came with problems of their own. Not only did they have an unpleasant smell, they produced layers of soot to contend with. On top of this, they also needed constant cleaning, refuelling and adjusting. Some of the grander homes at the time even dedicated a whole room to cleaning the glass of the many lamps required to get sufficient light. At Belvoir Castle, the Duke of Rutland had around 400 lamps to keep his staff busy.
Gas Lamps: A middle class must-have
The introduction of gas lighting in the 19th century finally brought a practical improvement in domestic lighting, as the light was readily available without the need to either constantly clean and trim the wicks of oil lamps, or to constantly replace candles and clean up spilt wax. At last people could read, sew, write and entertain more easily during the evenings and gas lighting soon became a middle class must-have. One women’s magazine even urged its readers to always give parties by gas light to show off one’s gasoliers, requiring curtains to be drawn for gatherings during the day.
Having said that, gas lamps made a room feel hot and stuffy, they took oxygen from the air and there were frequent explosions. All those Victorian ladies didn’t only faint because of tight-lacing, it was often owing to the lack of oxygen in gas-lit drawing rooms. It also explains the popularity of the aspidistra plant, which was one of the few able to thrive in oxygen-starved conditions.
Thankfully, Thomas Edison was working on bringing electric lighting to the masses. Working late into the night by gas lamp, as US comedian George Carlin joked, “I’m sure it made the work seem that much more urgent.”