When the power goes

Eyasu-etsub-j3R9C-Xqe1w-unsplash (1)Anne here pondering about weather and power and light…

Recently it seems like people all over the world are having extreme weather, often accompanied by power blackouts. Whether it's blizzards and ice-storms, record heat waves, lightning strikes, wildfires, hurricanes, cyclones or floods, generally they have one think in common — no power.  (Image by eyasu-etsub on Unplash.)

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’m luck and I haven’t been in any danger or even seriously inconvenienced. The worst I had was to be hot. Several years ago, it was our third day of 45º heat (that's 113º F) and the house, the dog and I were hot. 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 didn’t want 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 actually a living memory — though I was just a toddler. 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 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? She was a true heroine, my mum.

But that was then and this is . . . more recent. So, there 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.

WomanSewingAndReadingAnd 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 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. 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 below. CandleLight+Water   

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. Just.

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 good historical images of hapless seamstresses. There is a distinct shortage — 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 like the B&W image above where she's sewing and reading. Not that she's in a sweatshop.

WomanSewingByWindowBut 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. These days, of course, reading without electricity wouldn’t be a problem — my e-reader and laptop would keep me going for hours. But keeping food fresh, and having plenty of clean water, and staying warm, which are much more serious issues in extreme weather are not so easily solved.

(And if you're thinking this blog rings a bell, yes, it's an old one I wrote in 2009. I hurt my back last night and wasn't feeling up to writing a fresh blog. Sorry.) 

What about you? Have you had any extreme weather or power blackouts recently? What problems did it cause? Tell us about it.

27 thoughts on “When the power goes”

  1. Living on the southern edge of London I have to report that it’s been years since we had a power outage (though our two decorative oil lamps still have working wicks and an oil supply, so I am well prepared, as long as I can find the matches). Also, we’ve spent the “summer” north of a stuck jet stream so no extreme weather (unlike southern Europe), just lots of lightish rain with London living down to its – normally inaccurate – damp stereotype.
    I can’t help with your search for images of hapless seamstresses though you did remind me of the verbal image in Thomas Hood’s poem: https://poets.org/poem/song-shirt

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  2. Lost my power for two and a half days a couple of months ago due to a severe storm. Even though it was hot, my house didn’t get too unbearable. Had to throw out all the food in my fridge though. Back in the day, I would have had work to go to or just jumped in my car and went some place to relieve the boredom, but that is not an option for me any more. I was more concerned for my nephew who lives nearby. He is on oxygen 24/7 so he had to check into an hotel room to keep it going.
    Hadn’t lost power in 20 or 30 years though – so I guess I have been lucky.
    My mother’s family lived in a rural area that didn’t have electricity back in the Depression Era. After they lost the light her family would all sit around and sing to amuse themselves. That was why at every family reunion they would all take out their guitars and start singing.
    Great blog.

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  3. We haven’t had any power outages lately, but we have in the past. That was when I realized why dinner used to be in the middle of the day. It’s very hard to prepare dinner by candlelight. Chopping vegetables is more of an adventure than you would like!

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  4. Lived in an all electric apartment in Maryland once and had the power go out for a week in winter. It was warmer outside than in on some days. Also had the power go out for a week during a blizzard in Atlanta. Those times were actually easier to handle than having the power go out during the summer in Georgia especially after I moved from my house to a condo. I grew up before most places had AC. When the theatres were one of the first places to be air conditioned and the prices were fairly low, one could go and spend an afternoon in the cool theatre.

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  5. Anne, what interesting examples of how water was used to amplify light from candles. People are very ingenious. When I’m writing a historical novel, I try to stay aware that lighting was NOT easy and automatic in those days. In fact, in one book, Once a Spy, it started with my heroine doing piecework in London in the winter, and needing better light. Naturally, within a chapter the hero has arrived on the scene and offered her best quality beeswax courtship candles. *G* But yes, the world was a very different place, and the availability or lack of natural light really mattered.
    There have been times when I’ve had to endure several days without electricity because of weather conditions. Not fun. Not a problem lately, though, because we got a generator that kicks on when the power goes out. For luxury, don’t give me a Rolls Royce, but a generator!

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  6. I live in an aging condo complex built on lowest bidder principles, and it seems like somethng is always breaking. Transformers blow periodically and we lose power for at least 8 hours, sometimes much more, while Southern California Edison fixes them (which they do, and they are pretty fast, competent and well equipped, but it all takes time). If it’s not a blown transormer, it’s the homeless crowd that lives along the creek who hooks up to the nearest light pole, steals electricity and eventually breaks it) or the copper thieves who strip out the wiring to sell the metal. Then there’s high winds knocking down trees that haven’t been trimmed since Kennedy was president. Or a water main breaks and there’s no water to the complex (the last time that one lasted two days).
    Of all these, I can get by without electricity longest; I have battery radios and flashlights and I usually keep things fully charged — but try getting along without running water, especially running hot water. Can’t even brush your teeth without water, so I have to keep stocked on that at all times.
    It does make one feel that one is suddenly back in the 19th century. Summer or winter, it’s pretty uncomfortable. Our ancestors must have been tough, hard working people.

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  7. What a wonderful post, Anne!
    I’ve been fortunate to not have lost power for more than a few hours in quite some years. I do have a faint recollection of being without power in Guam for multiple days in the seventies due to a typhoon.
    Not quite on topic but I’m reminded of stories I’ve read where piece workers would have a designated worker read to them while they all contributed to fulfill her work allotment. This was often in a time where not all were literate.

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  8. Oh, Mike, what a powerful and moving poem — thank you so much for sending me the link. I’d never read it before, and it does evoke what it was like for the poor seamstresses, eking out a living, creating beautiful things for a pittance.
    As for power outages, I live in Melbourne, but in my old house we often had blackouts. It was a purely residential pocket — no shops and no factories — and I do believe that we were one of the areas that, when the power supply was stretched, we’d get blackouts first — a kind of steam-kettle release valve. I used to walk down to the corner and look along to where the shops were, and they were bright with light, and looking the other way to the main road where electric trams ran, and they had light too. But we were all darkness. I think the new house will have more reliable supply, because I’m only a few blocks from a shopping centre and a big supermarket. We’ll see.

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  9. Thanks, Mary. I’n my first house, which we left when I was four, they had lanterns that hung from the ceiling. The issue for us, in that “back-to-the-land” phase was water, as it was all rainwater and collected and stored in a tank, and in summer we had to be verrrry careful and water-wise.
    I think with extreme weather events becoming more common, we’re all going to have to get more savvy about preparing for them. Your poor nephew is in a very vulnerable position. Good think the hotel had power.

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  10. Nancy, yes, our government is trying to wean us all off gas and saying go all-electric, but I’m resisting it for as long as I can. I have installed solar panels for electricity, but I didn’t get a battery, so what I don’t use during the day goes back into the power grid. But my stovetop is gas, and so is my hot water and I like having both. Years ago there was an accident at the main gas plant for my city and we were without gas for several weeks. And it was winter. I had both gas and electric heating, but I could cook my meals on a small hibachi/bbq outside, and boil water with my electric kettle. I also learned to have cold showers! But my poor parents had all gas heating and they ended up looking like the Michelin man, wearing layer after layer, and going to bed early to get warm at night.

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  11. Mary Jo, your hero is, as always, wonderful. I bet that heroine felt guilty though, burning such expensive and beautiful candles.
    I imagine getting an electricity generator will become a much more common thing in the future. It used to only be people living in rural locations, but now that electricity is less reliable they’re becoming more of a necessity. I think. Especially in places where winter is really freezing and it’s dangerous not to have heating. Here our winters are relatively mild, so it’s not so dangerous. Unpleasant though.

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  12. Thanks, Janice — yes, water is the most precious, and most of us take it for granted — unless something happens. Flushing toilets is another thing that becomes an issue when the water runs out! Our government has been urging people to install water tanks. That started when we were in a long drought and were all having to ration our water. I was planning to install one at the old house, but don’t have one at the new house, and I think I will get one put in, especially now that I’ve been here a year and know how everything works.
    We tend to forget how pour ancestors organized themselves. I think I was luck that my parents went through that “back to the land” phase and I was able to learn how things were done in the old days. It has certainly fed into my books, on occasion.

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  13. Thanks, Kareni. Yes, I really feel for the people who live in locations that often get battered by typhoons, cyclones and hurricanes. My North Queensland friends brace themselves every year. Same with the people in Florida, I imagine.
    I love that image of people working while someone reads aloud to them. It was one of the ways that Charles Dickens became so widely “read” — because his novels were initially serialized in papers and magazines, which were affordable, and people read them aloud to others , and then passed them along.

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  14. Anne-I guess I can say that September 4was an example of extreme weather in Baltimore, Maryland USA. The mercury topped 100 Fahrenheit. Schools with no air conditioning are canceled for Tuesday. Yikes! There have been recent storms, some quite fierce. I’m more than ready for a quiet fall, when it arrives. I envy you seeing the Blue Moon.Twice!

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  15. Here on the east coast of the U.S. we’ve lost power periodically, during hurricane season in the fall, and in the winter during storms, especially the dreaded “nor’easter”. Usually it lasts for only a day, or 2 or 3 at worst. We’ve got gas for cooking and hot water, and warm blankets for the cold. The main problem is worrying that food in the freezer will defrost. And also having to open and close the garage door manually!
    When I was growing up, we had a wood stove as backup to the electric heat, but we also had a well which didn’t work without an electric pump, so the most important thing was to prepare buckets and jugs of water if a hurricane or storm was on the way.
    Next time it happens I’m going to try the water bowl trick. I’ve always used a sheet of aluminum foil to reflect the candle light, or position the candle in front of a mirror.

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  16. We still regularly lose power when there’s a storm and we’ve had quite a few of them this year already. I was born in England and with my parents and two brothers moved here to Ireland in 1968 where another brother was born that year. We left a two up two down terrace house with an outdoor toilet and came here to a three room cottage belonging to my grandmother. We didn’t have electricity here until 1972. How my mother coped I’ll never know!! After what she had left behind in England it was sheer torture. She had fantastic will power all her life and that must have been what saw her through because I know she was very unhappy. Not all heroes and heroines are big names to be long remembered. Really enjoyed the post Anne!

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  17. We haven’t had any power or water issues of any length for as long as I can remember. Mostly only losing electricity for a few hours. Pretty amazing since we’ve lived coast to coast & the Midwest! Touch wood or knock on it, I hope our luck holds.

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  18. I have said many times, esp. when reading historical books, thank you for having me born in this era! I know I’d be one of those folks having to do all the work, like boiling the laundry, cooking the meals over the wood stove after chopping the wood, etc and I’m so grateful I don’t have to do that stuff!
    We camped out a lot growing up so I did experience some of it–except we’d go to a laundromat in a nearby town!–and it’s not fun after a very short time! Poor Mom, even using a camping trailer with a stove, etc, they really weren’t great vacations for her, I’m afraid! Esp. when it was rainy & we kept tracking stuff inside!
    I’ve thought a bit about getting a generator for the house but natural gas isn’t an option in my little town. I’m wondering if I attach a tank of propane like one gets for the grill & cooking out…and how often does that have to be maintained…and how long does it fuel the generator before it runs out? Definitely need to research!
    I have 2 fuel oil lamps, better than candles, & even better to park them in front of a mirror. I’m thnking in one of the semi-recent 3 Musketeers movies, the gal that the spoiled brat king wanted was sitting in a dark room sewing with a candle behind a glass something. For some reason, I think she sat on one side, & held her stitching on the other side as it threw light on the stitching. Careful your hair doesn’t lean into the candle!

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  19. Thanks, Binnie Syril. That does sound unpleasant. Sadly, I think we’re all going to experience more extreme weather conditions in the future. But here’s hoping we’re slipping into a gentler season, whether autumn or spring.
    I’m so glad I saw the Blue Moon — I didn’t know to look for it especially, but it was so bright I noticed it anyway.

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  20. Karin, I imagine a mirror would be more effective than a glass bowl filled with water. I suspect mirrors were more expensive in the past. But it would be interesting to try it out.
    And yes, water is the most vital thing to preserve in an emergency. I don’t keep a lot of food frozen — mainly bread (because I don’t eat a lot of it) and meaty bones for my dog. So I hope I won’t have to contend with a long period without power. I’ve just realized that I gave away my gas bottle with the lantern and cooking attachments when I moved, so I won’t be able to fall back on that in future, either. Oh well, we’ll see how things turn out. I’m pretty adaptable. *g*

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  21. Teresa, I’m sure it was a huge change — and challenge— for your mother. So many women really had it tough in the past. Quite often when I drop my washing in the washing machine and press a button, I think of my mother, with 3 kids and a new baby, working full time, lugging the water from the tank and boiling the washing —all those nappies! —in a copper kettle out the backI I so agree with you about how many ordinary heroes and heroines should be remembered.

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  22. Thanks, kc — yes, I also feel lucky to have been born when I was. Mind you, I suspect people in the 18th and 19th century thought the same. It’s a constantly changing measure, isn’t it? *g* You know, I never thought about how the family washing was done when we were camping — which we did most years, especially in the long summer holidays. I suspect we worse swimming togs most of the time, so there wasn’t much. Who knows?
    I didn’t see any of those recent Musketeers movies — that’s so interesting that the girl was sewing with a candle behind glass.

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  23. What a wonderful post. In 2021 nearly the entire state of Texas was without power and iced in so unable to get out of their homes and no water was another issue. This lasted about one week. Over 700 people froze to death. I was blessed, I live in a part of town that did not do without electricity, but water became an issue.
    We lose power often.
    And it is always a large reminder that modern life can disappear instantly.
    Thanks again for the post.

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