Recently it seems like people all over the world are having extreme weather, often accompanied by power blackouts. In North America it's blizzards and ice-storms; in Australia, it's record heat waves, lightning strikes, bushfires, cyclones or floods, depending where you live. And no power…
We're so dependent on electricity that we take it completely for granted — until it goes.
And then, suddenly, you realize how very dependent we've become on it for all sorts of things and I don't just mean for serious things, though one friend of mine was without power in below freezing conditions, another lost several weeks worth of food that thawed and spoiled, and another was flooded and couldn't phone for help as her cordless phone battery had gone flat and there was no way to recharge it. The power failures caused really serious problems for many, many people.
But not for me. I wasn't in any danger or even seriously inconvenienced. I was just hot. It was our third day of 45º heat (that's 113º F) and the house, the dog and I were hot. But in the city people were stuck in lifts for hours in the heat, and stuck in packed trains, unable to get the electricity operated doors open. For them it was truly dreadful.
But not for me. My only problem—and it wasn't really a problem—was that I was bored. It was too hot to do housework or anything physically active. I couldn't listen to music, work on the computer, do the washing, or do anything useful (I told myself.) So I did what comes naturally — I started reading a book.
All well and good, you say, but then the light started to go, and the print started to fade. Simple, I hear you say — light a candle. I did, but still found myself squinting at the print. Light another one, you say — yes, but it was 113ºF and I wasn't going to add to the heat if I could help it.
So I sat there, pondering my problem, doing nothing useful, and thinking how not so long ago, we lived without power. For me it's a living memory. When I was born, my parents were in a "back to the land" phase, and living in an area where the electricity grid hadn't yet reached, so until I was four, we didn't have electric light. My mother came home from a full days teaching in a hot army hut school building, teaching 40+ little kids, none of whom spoke English. At the end of the day she came home, cooked a meal for a family of six on a wood stove, did all the washing by hand, boiling the sheets up in a big copper kettle and who knows what else?
Of course she was clearly barking mad, doing all of this when we could have lived in town and had electricity and all the mod cons, and by now you're wondering why I'm telling you this, but I'm taking you through my very slow thought processes at the time (After 3 days at 113ºF the synapses fire slowly.) So, I was reading a good book and didn't want to put it down and the light was fading and it was, I felt, too hot to light two candles.
And thus my mind turned very naturally to the sweat shops of London, where hapless women were crammed into rooms to squint over a seam or a hem or fine, delicate embroidery, for which they were paid a pittance. The conditions were appalling and the light was worse because, of course, candles and lamp oil were expensive. The cheap candles threw, at best, a feeble light and were smelly and smoky. Fine sewing for long hours in poor light ruined the seamstresses' eyesight. As finishing this book in the fading twilight was likely to do to mine (see, there is a point to all this.)
As I considered my problem, I remembered that seamstresses used to put a candle behind a glass globe filled with water, which acted as a lens. Would this work for me? I wondered. So I experimented.
I lit a candle and took a photo of a book – that's it, above. No flash of course. Then without moving the candle or the book, I put a bowl of water in front of the flame and took another photo from the same position. Thirdly I tried using a large plastic bottle of water to see if that could be a lens, too. It could. It made an appreciable difference, as you can see.
It was a bit tricky for reading; you had to move the page around a bit to get the best light, but it was clearly a workable alternative.
Then the power came back on, so I experimented no further.
When it came time to write this blog, I did a search for some nice historical images of hapless seamstresses. There is a distinct lack — mostly there are paintings of a nice middle-class woman sewing by the window of a large, well lit room, or sitting outside in some idyllic setting, in the grass or on a rock. (You can tell the artists never had to get grass stains out of white cotton!) I could find no images of women in a sweatshop bending over a sputtering tallow candle, catching its light through a bowl of water.
But I did find this account by a Mrs. Roberts of Northamptonshire of how light was provided for a large number of lacemakers, in the school she attended in the early 19th century:
"In the evenings eighteen girls worked by one tallow candle, value one penny; the 'candle-stool' stood about as high as an ordinary table with four legs. In the middle of this was what was known as a 'pole-board' with 6 holes in the circle and one in the centre. In the centre was a long stick with a socket for the candle at one end, and peg holes through the sides, so that it could be raised and lowered at will. In the other six holes were placed pieces of wood hollowed out like a cup and into each of these was placed a bottle made of very thin glass and filled with water. These bottles acted as strong condensers or lenses, and the eighteen girls sat round the table, three to each bottle, their stools being upon different levels, the highest near the bottle, which threw the light down on the work like a burning glass."
[Quoted in Findings By Mary Carolyn Beaudry. p157 Published by Yale University Press, 2006]
Anyway, I finished my book in bright electric light, basking in a cool air conditioned breeze and feeling very grateful that I wasn't born a seamstress in a sweatshop in the early 19th century.
What about you? Have you had any extreme weather or power blackouts recently? What problems did it cause? Tell us about it.