7.3 Let There Be Light: A History of Flipping the Switch

Let There Be Light

Keeping out the night was a substantial, and sometimes insurmountable task for housewives of the past. This episode talks about the hazy origins of artificial light through the centuries to a time when lighting your house is so easy you probably don’t even think of it as housework.

This episode is part of the series Comfort for a Discouraged Housewife.

Full Transcript

For most modern women, lighting your house is so easy you probably don’t even think of it as housework. Everybody in the family knows how to switch it on and (theoretically) how to switch it off. You might grumble when a bulb burns out or a bill comes due, but beyond that it doesn’t really feature on your to-do list. Well, such was not the case for your foremothers. Keeping out the night was a substantial, and sometimes insurmountable task. We don’t know what man or woman first discovered how to make fire. And we don’t know what man or woman discovered how to make it portable, but whoever it was, she lived a very, very long time ago.

The simplest and most obvious of all lights is to take a stick and light one end of it on fire. The torch or splint is assumed to be the first lighting device, and it never really went out of use. We have references to torches in the Bible.

Ocote torches at Aztec wedding

We have pictures of Aztecs carrying pine torches from the ocote tree, which is still to this day used for fire starters.

Image: from the Codex Mendoza on Wikimedia Commons

We have torches as glorious, inspiring symbols in the Statue of Liberty and the opening of the Olympics. We have torches as symbols of something very much less inspiring in the hands of Nazis and white nationalists (Bond).

But as an everyday lighting device, a torch leaves a lot to be desired, in terms of safety and ease-of-use. And the man or woman who solved that also lived a very long time ago. The caves at Lascaux, France, were painted 17,000 years ago, and these people worked by the light of oil lamps made out of stone.

Some of these were no more than naturally bent rocks, but others are carefully carved, including one exquisite one known as the lamp of Lascaux. Details changed, but in principle these people already had a system that worked so well that many people were still using it into the 19th century.

Image: Lamp of Lascaux from Wikimedia Commons

An oil lamp requires three things: a container to hold the oil, the oil itself, and a wick. Ignite one end of the wick, and let there be light.

What the container was varied considerably. So stone in Lascaux. Pottery or metal in the Middle East. Pottery, metal, or porcelain in China. In Polynesia, half a coconut worked just as well and was a lot easier to make.

The wick varies too, so in Lascaux, it was a juniper twig. In India a twist of cotton. In Polynesia a twig wrapped in plant fibers. Sometimes the wick just floats on top of the oil, possibly with the help of a piece of cork. Sometimes it is weighed down at the bottom, maybe with a stone or some rice grains. Sometimes it is deliberately wedged into the container to fix it in place. The varieties are pretty endless.

The oil was olive oil if you lived in a place where olives grew. Coconut oil if you lived in a place with coconuts. Both of those worked fairly well. Other oils worked too, but some are hard to process, and some gave better light than others. And some smell bad.

The available literature on these lamps tends to focus on the physical production of the container—pottery techniques, artistic design, and so forth. But I am far more interested in what it meant to live with one of these. Because it was not just a matter of flipping a switch.

Those oil containers have to be refilled regularly. Spills have to be cleaned up. Depending on the material used, it might need cleaning or polishing to keep off rust. Certainly to keep off soot. And the wick should be trimmed regularly because a long wick consumes more fuel, gives wavering light, and produces more soot.

Image: Basic oil lamp from Wikimedia Commons

So taking care of the light was a daily maintenance task for anyone in charge of a household, and a daily worry if you struggled with paying for the oil. For most areas of the world, I have no idea whether this was specifically a woman’s job. But it certainly was later on in the historical period in many areas.

Still, the oil lamps worked well enough that no huge change was needed, unless you lived in an area where oil in liquid form was hard to find. If you have the misfortune to live where olives and coconuts don’t grow, then vegetable oil may not be as accessible to you as some good solid animal fat.

Technically, it is possible to do a similar thing with a slab of grease or fat. But it’s harder. The container can’t be clay because it has to get hot enough to melt the grease. When the grease does melt, it tends to flow away from the wick, so if you haven’t got the right shaped container, you will have to continually push it back up to the wick in order to keep it burning. It also spits and spatters, making a mess and possibly a burn.

So bring on the candles. The simplest type of candle-like-thing is so simple that by some definitions, it doesn’t even count as a candle. A rushlight was generally made by the women of the family. You take a rush (that’s a particular common grass that grows on every continent except Antarctica). You peel it, dip it once in leftover grease from your cooking, let it dry it, and you’re done. A 2-foot rushlight would burn for about an hour.

If you were lucky, you owned a rushlight stand, which is a metal stand with a pincer clamp on top that would hold your rush for you while it burned.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

One source I read said that a pound of rushes and six pounds of fat would set up a family with light for a year (Thwing, 98). That seems really low to me, but probably the family was keeping more sensible hours than the people in my family do.

If you kept dipping, over and over, you got a true rush candle, and that would burn for longer. If you had the means, you might use something other than a rush as a wick. A twist of cotton was common, but it gives dim and smoky light. If you braided it tightly, it did better. If you had even more means you might make candles by molds, rather than dipping. That was faster to make and produced beautifully even candles, but of course, you had to buy the molds and you had to have a lot of wax all at the same time.

This matter of finance was not trivial. A slaughtered ox could produce about 300 candles, but most people didn’t have an ox. Certainly not one available for slaughtering, so every bit of that fat was valuable.

The payroll of the English court in 1136 made that perfectly clear. The lord chancellor was paid a daily stipend, part in cash, part in kind. The part in kind included 40 candle ends. The master of the scriptorium got 24 candle ends (among other things.) So the kind of thing that you and I might be tempted to simply throw away because most of the candle is gone, they kept and paid high officials with. And since we’re doing women’s history I’ll just add that in this long list of highly detailed salaries, when we get to the one person who is definitely a woman (the washerwoman), it says “in dubio est” which is Latin for “in doubt.” Yeah, really let that sink in. The master of the king’s household is in doubt about how much or even whether he will pay the woman on his staff (Nigel, 133).

But back to the point. In 16th century England hard fats sold for a higher price than lean meat, because light is really important.

All kinds of devices were in use to help a woman stretch her pennies and her labor. A saveall was a device for holding the very last bits of a candle to burn it right to the very end. A water lens was a glass ball that you filled with water and hung in front of your candle to disperse the light.

As far as daily maintenance was concerned, candle wax drips, and it was a housewife’s or a maid’s job to clean it up. Candle wicks still have to be trimmed to give a steady light. There’s still soot, and beef tallow candles smell bad, so rooms needed airing out. Beeswax candles were better in that respect but more expensive.

Many women were not making candles for the simple reason that they weren’t allowed to. Candles were taxable revenue, and therefore regulated. In 1799, the English William Cobbett wrote that his grandmother lived to be 90 and never burned a candle in her life. She’d have liked to, but it was against the law to make your own and she couldn’t afford the commercial versions, therefore rushlights for 90 years (Thwing, 99).

It was not until into the 19th century that things started to change. That’s when the whaling industry got very, very good at destroying the whale population. Whale oil had been known for millennia but catching and processing whales was something else again. When ships and harpoons got better, the job got easier. Vast American fortunes (including that of Hetty Green’s family, episode 3.8) were made by hunting whales. The whales were used for many things, but the most important thing was for oil lamps. Whale oil, and sperm whale oil in particular, didn’t smell bad, gave steadier light, and very little grease. Housewives rejoiced. Whales and future ecologists, not so much.

By mid-century oil lamps and commercial candles were so cheap that the published guides for housewives no longer included detailed instructions on making candles. You just bought them.

Catherine Beecher, our domestic goddess of the 19th century, preferred lamps to candles, because they gave steadier light and didn’t scatter grease so much. But that didn’t mean they were not a chore. In 1841, she wrote:

“The care of lamps requires so much attention and discretion, that many ladies choose to do this work, themselves, rather than trust it with domestics. To do it properly, provide the following things: An old waiter, to hold all the articles used; a lamp-filler, with a spout, small at the end, and turned up to prevent oil from dripping; a ball of wick yarn, and a basket to hold it; a lamp-trimmer, made for the purpose, or a pair of sharp scissors; a small soap-cup and soap; some pearlash, in a broad-mouthed bottle; and several soft cloths, to wash the articles, and towels, to wipe them. If every thing, after being used, is cleansed from oil, and then kept neatly, it will not be so unpleasant a task, as it usually is, to take care of lamps.

Wash the shade of an astral lamp, once a week, and the glass chimney oftener. Take the lamp to pieces, and cleanse it, once a month. Keep dry fingers, in trimming lamps. . . Trim [the wick], after it has been once used; and, in lighting it, raise it to the proper height, as soon as may be, or it will either smoke, or form a crust. . . Fill the entry-lamp, every day, and cleanse and fill night-lanterns, twice a week, if used often.”

(Beecher, 282-283)

So not quite as easy as flipping a switch.

In 1854, mankind figured out what to do with crude oil. Crude oil had been known since Assyrian times, but it’s not much use without refinement. In 1854 the process for extracting kerosene was invented and within a decade, it was cheaper than any other oil, much to the relief of the whale population. A stunning array of burners, lamps, and chimneys were invented, practically overnight, none of which eased the burden on women. The wicks still needed daily trimming. The chimneys and shades needed weekly washing. If you didn’t do it, the lamp gave bad light, and whether you did it or not, soot got everywhere.

Gasoline, by the way, was an irritating by-product at this point. One that they disposed of by dumping it into rivers, so there’s another ecological disaster for you.

Candles were still in use to some extent too. As late as 1907, cleaning the candle wax off the candle stick was still listed as a housemaid’s job, so all of these methods were really coexisting depending on your situation.

On a separate track was the idea of gas lighting. As in so many things, China was there first. The first recorded use of gas lighting is from about 500 BCE, when residents of Szechuan province piped it through bamboo pipes to light their city. The Western World didn’t manage it until 1804 in London. It boomed for streetlights but didn’t really catch on in homes until the 1880s.

Beecher did not live to write a manual that included gas lamps. But one of her successors did. On the subject of lights, Helen Campbell says “Gas hardly requires a mention, as the care of it is limited to seeing that it is not turned too high, the flame in such care not only vitiating the air of the room with double speed, but leaving a film of smoke upon every thing in it” (Campbell, 45). And that’s it. She moves on to oil lamps. There is no mention of candles at all. The other thing there is absolutely no mention of is electricity.

Thomas Edison was not the first to create an electric light, but in 1881 his bulb beat out the competition. Even so, his real breakthrough wasn’t the bulb, it was the distribution. Before Edison, if you wanted an electric light you had to buy a power plant. After Edison, you bought the bulbs and the power, but not the plant. The first lucky housewife to get electric lighting is a matter that my sources do not agree on, but certainly it was not an overnight transformation because it required infrastructure that didn’t exist, and the gas works were already in place.

However there were several good reasons for making the switch. Gas lamps generated a lot of heat, which was good in winter and bad in summer. They also generated carbon monoxide, which was less of a problem than you might think, given that houses were also drafty, but still. They also had to be lit by hand every night, and yes Helen Campbell, it was by no means unusual for them to blacken the wall.

People were at first both afraid of electricity and puzzled by it. One wall plaque from the 1880s said “This room is equipped with Edison Electric light. Do not attempt to light with match. Simply turn key on wall by the door. The use of Electricity for lighting is in no way harmful to health, nor does it affect the soundness of sleep” (Atherton, 6). Actually I would feel a lot better about that plaque if I could find the original of it, instead of a lot of mostly uncited references, but even if that particular plaque is a fabrication, the idea of it is correct. Electric lights were so easy, they seemed like magic, and were therefore suspect. But the idea was catching.

By 1925, half of all American homes had electric light (National Park Service). By the end of the 1930s, two-thirds of all British homes had them (Science Museum). Other countries followed their own path, many of them right in step with the US and the UK.

What this meant is so incredible that those of us who have never lived without electricity can hardly even conceive of it. Electricity does many things for us, but the lights alone erased a major item off the busy woman’s to-do list, and there’s more: For most of history, the world at night was a dangerous place, where you could do very little. One thing torches, oil lamps, candles, and gas lamps have in common is that they were dim by today’s standards. The poor could not afford much light. The long, dark nights of winter must have been very, very long.

In 1878, a bridge in London was lit with alternating gas and electric lights to show the difference. The electric lights were much brighter. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In addition, every form of light prior to the electric bulb involved an open flame. Burns were common. The fire danger was real.

I tried to find out which of the major fires of history were caused by lighting accidents, but it’s tricky. Generally speaking, people didn’t know where or why a fire started. The Great Fire of Chicago was supposedly started when a cow kicked over a lantern, but the owner denied it. And for the rest, there’s generally not even as much of a story as that. But whether caused by domestic lighting or not, fire was an ever-present danger.

In the Middle Ages, the largest city in the world was Hangzhou, China. In 1201 a fire destroyed 50,000 homes. They rebuilt and in 1208, another fire destroyed 50,000 more homes. The same was true in any urban area where houses were close together. The Great Fire of Tokyo killed 100,000 people, but it was only the biggest of many in Japan. Constantinople had 109 extensive fires between 1633 and 1839 at a rate of about one every two years (Frost).

Fire danger meant people built cheap and didn’t collect much. Why would you do otherwise when you knew it was only a matter of time before it burned? And that too had an impact on how women lived, much like an enforced form of poverty.

Today my family gets pretty testy if the power goes out for more than a few minutes, so it’s worth taking a look at how many people still live that way. As of 2016, 87% of the world’s population has access to electricity. Most of the people who do not live in Africa. But I will hasten to add that the bar for having access here is low. Four hours per day counts. So there are still a great many women in the world who must manage with one of the other options (Ritchie).

If you happen to be flipping a switch today, give it a thought. Many a woman would have considered it a miraculous or even God-like power to be able to say “Let there be light,” and there is light, and it is good.

Selected Sources

Aiyappan, A., and C. J. Jayadev. “56. Oil Lamps in South India.” Man 57 (1957): 48–48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2794812.

Atherton, W.A.. From Compass to Computer: History of Electrical and Electronics Engineering. United Kingdom: Macmillan Education UK, 1984.

Beecher, Catherine E. Treatise on Domestic Economy : For the Use of Young Ladies at Home, and at School. 1845. New York, Harper and Brothers, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21829/21829-h/21829-h.htm. Accessed 16 Apr. 2022.

Bond, Sarah. “A Short History of Torches and Intimidation.” Forbes, 15 Aug. 2017, http://www.forbes.com/sites/drsarahbond/2017/08/15/a-short-history-of-torches-and-intimidation/?sh=21aea3b96762. Accessed 17 Apr. 2022.

Campbell, Helen. Easiest Way in Housekeeping and Cooking. Boston, Little, Brown, and Company, 1903, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15360/15360-h/15360-h.htm. Accessed 16 Apr. 2022.

Dalling, Robert. The Story of Us Humans, from Atoms to Today’s Civilization. United States: iUniverse, 2006.

Darbee, Herbert C. “A GLOSSARY OF OLD LAMPS: And Lighting Devices.” History News 20, no. 8 (1965): 159–74. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42651280.

FROST, LIONEL. “Coping in Their Own Way: Asian Cities and the Problem of Fires.” Urban History 24, no. 1 (1997): 5–16. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44612858.

Gibbings, Robert. “158. Polynesian Oil Lamps.” Man 55 (1955): 144–144. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2794608.

Guarnieri, Massimo. (2018). An Historical Survey on Light Technologies. IEEE Access. PP. 1-1. 10.1109/ACCESS.2018.2834432.

Jingjin, Yue. “A Short History of Chinese Lamps-SSCP.” Www.csstoday.com, 22 Feb. 2018, http://www.csstoday.com/Item/5287.aspx. Accessed 17 Apr. 2022.

Mursell, Ian. “Pine Torch.” Mexicolore, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/artefacts/pine-torch. Accessed 13 Apr. 2022.

National Park Service. “The Electric Light System – Thomas Edison National Historical Park (U.S. National Park Service).” Www.nps.gov, 26 Feb. 2015, http://www.nps.gov/edis/learn/kidsyouth/the-electric-light-system-phonograph-motion-pictures.htm#:~:text=In%201882%20Edison%20helped%20form. Accessed 17 Apr. 2022.

Ritchie, Hannah, and Max Roser. “Access to Energy.” Our World in Data, 20 Sept. 2019, ourworldindata.org/energy-access#:~:text=At%20a%20global%20level%2C%20the. Accessed 17 Apr. 2022.

Sayer, Karen, and Maryse Helbert. “Illuminating Women: The Case of Candles in the English Home, 1815–1900.” RCC Perspectives, no. 1 (2020): 30–35. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26937550.

Science Museum. “Electrifying: The Story of Lighting Our Homes.” Science Museum, http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories/everyday-wonders/electric-lighting-home. Accessed 17 Apr. 2022.

Smith, Robert Houston. “The Household Lamps of Palestine in Intertestamental Times.” The Biblical Archaeologist 27, no. 4 (1964): 101–24. https://doi.org/10.2307/3211000.

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