"How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world." William Shakespeare
For the most part, people took the low tech approach. Daily life followed the sun. Country folk got up with the chickens, not just because the chickens were making an almighty determined racket, but because there was a day of work to get to. Every hour the family stayed awake past sunset cost money.
They made good use of the daylight while they had it. The well-to-do had tall windows in their houses, the better to invite the sunlight inside. Even the stables had windows. In 1800, if you wanted to shell peas or sew some fine embroidery, you'd take it to the windowseat or go sit on the doorstep of the cottage.
"When Thomas Edison worked late into the night on the electric light, he had to do it by gas lamp or candle. I'm sure it made the work seem that much more urgent. "
When you didn't have free light from the sky, or didn't have enough of it, you made your own.
The oldest form of lighting known to man is probably collecting a stick of something that burns reliably and poking it into the fire till it catches and then walking around with it till, ouch, it singes the fingers. The final flowering of this line of thought is the rushlight and the torch.
A rushlight — sometimes the name says it all — is made from a rush. That's a tall weed that grows in marshy places, with which the British Isles are plentifully supplied. Women and children collected rushes in the summer, peeled off all but a thin layer of the tough green skin. The pith was long and thin. Think reeeealy thick spaghetti about two feet long. This was hung up in bunches, dried, and then drawn through melted fat. You can see the dilemma for a poor family here. They can eat that fat or they can burn it for light. If you stayed up late chewing the fat, you were also burning it.
"It is not economical to go to bed early to save candles if the result is twins."
A typical rush light would burn maybe a quarter hour to as long as an hour. The rush went into the jaw of a split piece of wood or a metal holder that held it at an angle so it wouldn't burn up all at once.
Rushlight was the poor man's candle — it gave off about the same amount of light as a candle — and the rushlight was made even more attractive because candles were taxed in England between 1709 and 1831. Candlemaking required a license. That's why your Regency heroine messes about making perfumes, cosmetics, herbal remedies for the poor and maybe some potent cherry cordial, but does not make interestingly scented candles.
Your Georgian and Regency folks would most often encounter the torches carried by linkboys as they made their way home from the theatre or a party. According to Samuel Pepys, “links were torches of tow or pitch to light the way.” Linkboys were men and boys who, for a farthing, ran in front of the carriage, or accompanied sedan chairs and those on foot, to light the road ahead. In thieves' cant a linkboy was called a "moon-curser" because they didn't find work on moonlit nights.
The other old form of lighting is the oil lamp. In its simplest form, an oil lamp needs only three elements — the liquid oil, the wick and the fire. It's nice if you can add a glass chimney around the fire to keep the flame steady and to keep it from blowing out. On the other hand, open lamps lit everything from caves to igloos . . . (Igli?) . . . for millennia before glass chimneys. Long after 1800, primitive crofts in the hills and fishers' huts by the sea might still have an oil lamp on the table that would have been at home in Babylon.
I experimented with primitive oil lamps technology as I was sitting down to write. I poured olive oil into a dish — actually a big ole' spoon rest — and cut a shoelace for a wick and laid it in to soak up the oil. My 'lamp' burned pretty durn well, with a fine, steady, smokeless yellow light. I don't know how long it would have continued to burn. (I was pleased to get it started at all.) The oil didn't smoke or smell in the slightest.
What's technically interesting about the whole 'oil lamps' thing, is that the wick doesn't burn. What the wick does is 'wick up' the burnable oil toward the fire. The fire drinks it off and more oil gets pulled up but the flame burns 'on top' of the wick. Little, if any, of the wick is consumed.
Oil lamps lit the streets of London. Lamplighters made their rounds, cleaned the glass, trimmed the wick, and refilled the reservoir. Oil lamps stood at the mouths of harbors to mark the entry to safety. Oil lamps went underground with the miners.
The snazziest oil lamp of the Regency period was the Argand — above and to the left. This was the space-age technology of the Regency. It was patented in 1780 and would have been a familiar sight in the study of every Regency gentleman. The oil resevoir is there in the middle and fed down to the lamp. It had a tubular wick, so it must have produced a round circle of flame, I should think.
"With darkness diminished, the opportunities for privacy and reflection are lessened."
And we come to candles, candles candles — the go-to choice for carrying upstairs at that country houseparty the heroine is attending. She picks a candleholder from the table at the bottom of the stairs, lights herself up from the central candle there, and heads off through the long, dark, chilly halls . . . doubtless with the hero sneaking along behind in the Stygean gloom, taking an interest.
Authorial Real Life Tidbit here. When I was in the upcountry in Africa, some places didn't have any electricity. When night falls in a land without electricity, it gets DARK. Walking about a village from house to house I was perfectly willing to believe in hobgoblins, will-o'-the-wisps, boggarts, trolls, witches, nightsneaks, ghoulies, ghosties, long-legged beasties and werewolves. Dark is scary.
"Let the night teach us what we are, and the day what we should be."
Thomas Tryon, 1691
Ok. Back to candles.
Candles use the same wicking principle as a lamp. The wick can slurp up only the fuel that's melted at the top in the upper cup of the candle. The whole 'puddle of melted wax' situation at the top of a candle is an integral part of its operation, which will certainly make me more understanding next time I have to clean drops of wax out of the carpet.
It was 'one fuel for the rich, another for the poor'. Beeswax for the parlor; tallow candles in the kitchen. Tallow candles apparently did not fill the air with a pleasant aroma. To add insult to injury, beeswax candles burned 30% brighter than tallow.
Let me quote a modern source experimenting with historical candle lighting:
"I had expected the wax candles to smoke and smell more than they did, in line with a number of contemporary references. . . . a second batch of tallow candles . . . as unrefined as possible, just animal suet in effect, . . . still failed to create a smelly fug.
Candles were expensive — remember the tax? To light the night with beeswax candles was a statement of wealth. There was nothing democratic about candlelight. In Georgian and Regency England it was the province of the wealthy and the growing middle class.
For those who had to venture out into the night, the lantern was the flashlight of its day. It could hold oil, but was more frequently a candle affair. There'd be glass or horn on the four sides to keep it from blowing out. Others were made of metal where one side opened to show the road ahead. These 'dark lanterns' were discreet, of course, but they were not solely used to be secretive. The dark lantern had the advantage of sturdiness — no glass to break — and cheapness in a time when glass was expensive.
A single light in a dwelling place, like a single source of heat from the fire, meant that everybody gathered round sociably. Or not so sociably, depending upon the family. There was an enforced togetherness in a time when candles were not made to be wasted, rooms were not lit without a good reason, and the bedside taper was extinguished at once to lessen the chance of fire.
"One 60-watt electric bulb generates the light of approximately 60 candles."
Candles often had a reflective surface behind them to double the illumination in a thrifty way. Folks would place them next to mirrors.
Pepys writes of something that may be similar. ". . . and so home to my office, and there came Mr. Cocker, and brought me a globe of glasse, and a frame of oyled paper, as I desired, to show me the manner of his gaining light to grave [note — engrave] by, and to lessen the glaringnesse of it at pleasure by an oyled paper. This I bought of him, giving him a crowne for it; and so, well satisfied, he went away, and I to my business again, and so home to supper, prayers, and to bed."
"I shall make electricity so cheap that only the rich can afford to burn candles." Edison
[lantern is from the Met, here. open oil lamp cc attrib surajramk]
How do you feel about night? Aside from the obvious, what do you want your hero and heroine to get up to at night?
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