EARLY ARTIFICIAL LIGHT… or it’s sure dark in here

Once the sun set it was a dark and shadowy world in colonial America. In most smaller homes, people saw only by the light of the fire on the hearth. Burning candles or oil in lamps was wasteful. You didn’t use them unless you really needed them. Even the well to do lived in comparative darkness. Candles were placed and moved about the house only where they were needed.

One early form of lighting was the rush light, used since at least medieval times. Rushes were cut and dried, then dipped in hot fat or oil. They’d be clipped onto rush holders, many of which did double duty as candleholders too. I don’t happen to have any pictures of rush holders, and each picture of one I’ve seen looks different. They were all made of iron, and had a hinged section which would grasp and hold the rushes. They would also have a candle holder. You can Google rush holder and find some pictures. A good 2 ½’ rush would burn about 1 hour.

Early candles were made of wax or tallow or mixture of both. Spermaceti for candles was introduced in the mid 1700’s. It was a hard white wax found in the heads of sperm whales.
Bayberry wax was gathered by boiling the berries of the bayberry bush, then skimming the wax from the surface of the water.

Wax candles were made by basting the wick with melted wax. When thick enough they were rolled while warm to make them smooth. Wax candles could not be made in molds, because they shrank too much as they cooled. Tallow candles, ones made from animal fats, could be dipped or cast in molds. Wax candles were more expensive to buy, so tallow candles were more commonly used, in spite of the fact that they smelled and gave off smoke. Even the well to do often tended to use tallow candles for every day.

In 1709 a candle tax was imposed. All home made candles were forbidden and the apparatus to make them was hidden or destroyed. The tax on wax candles was twice that on tallow ones. The British had to deal with the candle tax until the 1830’s.

Candle holders existed in every possible form.
These are bedroom candle holders from late 1700’s.
Oil lamps came in every possible look too. The simplest kind of oil lamp was to pour some oil into a cup and put a string wick into it.

Hand lanterns came in many varieties. Some had glass or horn shades. Sheets of mica were also used as safety lantern shades. Other lamps were metal with one open side to cast light, while other metal lamps had perforated sides all around. The metal lamps could be square or cylindrical.

Just imagine, when some 18th or early 19th century writer described a room lit up for a grand ball as being as bright as day, they may very well been talking about a room equivalent to one lit by a 25 watt bulb today.

Circa 1824 painting by Henry Sargent


  1. Nice intro! We've got a lamp collection and I especially liked your reference to the 25 watt bulb. We are a school museum and need to help kids imagine that dim light.

  2. boring you suck !!!!!!!!!!!!! just kidding it was very good info

  3. Thank you! This was great!

  4. Wow ! what an interesting blog.Thanks for sharing this information.Your information is really informative for us.
    Nice blog on Bayberry wax
    Keep sharing more & more.....


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