Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Candles in Colonial Times: The Light at its Brightest

"If the only light and heat comes from candles and fireplaces because of a power outage at your house, it is frustrating and annoying - but when it comes in the form of intimate tours of a (historical) village, it is charming and peaceful."
~A quote from Old Sturbridge Village~

Knitting by candlelight at the 1750 Daggett Home in historic Greenfield Village.
Autumn is upon us, and the days are beginning to grow darker earlier and earlier. The sun tends to hide behind clouds more often than in the summer months.
As this season of falling leaves and cooler temps gets underway, we in my family frequently light candles and oil lamps at dinner time...for no special reason other than we like the atmosphere it gives, for, like the quote above, it really does allow for a "charming and peaceful" ambience.
Every-so-often, during storms (lightning, snow, or wind), we will lose power at our home. If it happens during daytime hours it's not usually too bad when there is plenty of daylight left coming through the windows, and will not generally really affect our day-to-day activities too much.
~Games and reading material by candlelight~
(my own little night time colonial scenario in my house)
That is, until sunset and twilight time rolls around.
Then, once again, as the quote states above, it can become "frustrating and annoying." Yes, even to this living historian who spends his weekends in the distant past, losing electricity can become a pain in the butt. Let me be honest here, I am set up for modern life more than the old ways: my house is run on electricity, therefore during a power outage, I have no heat (there is no real fireplace in my home, though I do have a fake electric one), no way to cook our food (I suppose I could build a fire outside in our yard), and no cellar (yes - gasp! - I keep my food cold by means of a refrigerator and freezer). Entertaining ourselves isn't such a big deal. We'll play board games, cards, and even pull out the guitars to play some music. And, since each of us has a large actual book collection, we can amuse ourselves without much difficulty by reading.
Have candle, will travel...
As reenactors during power outages, our candles and oil lamps are generally more easily accessible than flashlights. In fact, many times I've used candle light to search for my flashlight, or flashlight batteries. 
Needless to say, going to the bathroom becomes infinitely more interesting, and can be a chore; we are so used to high brightness that it's almost eerie without.
To head to the basement to get more paper towel? Bring a candle with you. Want to change into your night clothes? Have that oil lamp setting near your dresser. Need to get a drink of water from the kitchen? Make sure to bring your light.
The funny thing is, during these blackouts I still habitually reach for the light switch whenever I enter a darkened room.
You, too?

It's amazing how many candles one can go through during an outage; we do try to conserve, as did the folks in days of old, by only using one or two candles in whatever room we are in, with the second light usually for "traveling" around the house.
Reading and writing...
One definite lesson I learned about candle comparisons: the 12" long tapered candles I sometimes buy at the store burn nearly three times as fast as the 6" to 7" beeswax candles I dip myself. One beeswax candle almost half that size can burn for five hours or more, while the longer modern store-bought one lasts maybe two or three hours at most.
This was confirmed by Tom Redd, a Materials Analyst for the Foundation in Colonial Williamsburg: “Let us imagine we have four candles, and each one is about three-quarters of an inch in diameter and they are all about 10 inches long. They are in a room where the air is still. A candle well-made of the best tallow might burn two hours. A bayberry candle might last eight, while a beeswax candle may burn for 10 hours. The finest candle, imported from New England, would have been made of spermaceti wax. Spermaceti is taken from the head of the sperm whale. The spermaceti candle might last 12 hours or more, and burn with a brighter light.”
Our ancestors did live in darker times, as we in the modern day find out when a power outage strikes; we are so used to having bright electric lights, day or night, that sometimes even sunlight coming through a window isn't bright enough for some - they'll still turn on their electric light. But historian Eric Sloane mentions that our ancestors had keener eyesight than the average person of today, possibly as a result of our dependency on the electric light. Farmers especially used to work in what we call darkness, frequently doing their haying and other chores by the light of the moon and stars.
There are also those who feel - have proven, to some extent - that the harshness of the modern electric light plays greatly upon our moods and emotions:
~excessive artificial lighting can cause us to feel nervous and on edge 
~uncovered globes and lamps without shades can cause us to feel irritated
More of a 19th century look than colonial, but this is how our back "gathering room" looks shortly before we clutter it up with Thanksgiving dinner and family members. 
Looks nice and calming, doesn't it?
Yep - this is the atmosphere we have during our holiday meal.
And common sense can tell us of the relaxation received upon entering a candle lit room. When friends visit our home on a fall or winter evening, the candle/oil lamp light we use brings a smile to their faces...every time.  
Even the kids.
And natural lighting through windows has calming effects on our emotions as well.
A candle burning near a window during daylight hours?
I think not.
But I am inside the historic Eagle Tavern in Greenfield Village where ambience, 
like the food served, means everything.

Artificial light in the 18th century was truly a luxury. People were used to working by daylight while indoors, so lighting a candle when the sun was up was rare. It was customary for folks to move from room to room to get the most out of the day's light. Generally, candles were lit only during the nighttime hours, and sparingly so, due to the lengthy candle-making process. According to one of the chandlers I spoke to at Colonial Williamsburg, a typical middle class home in the 1750's could go through nearly 500 to 700 candles a year. And that may even be a conservative amount for some.
(By the way, I was able to somewhat back this up by reading a few diaries notes, as you shall see)~
I would say these folks are well on their way in making their 500+ quota.
Of course, upper classes would go through plenty more. 

Wife make thine owne candle,
spare pennie to handle.
Provide thy tallow, ere frost cometh in,
and make thine owne candle, ere winter begin.

18th century homes were as self-sufficient as they could be and those who lived in them did their best to produce as many things needful to life as they could, and this did include candles. As part of their domestic work, colonial women usually were the ones who carried the entire candlemaking process from start to finish, though many times the children, and even the men at times, would help out as well.
Only the light of a single candle...
(taken inside the McGuffey Cabin in Greenfield Village)
The season for dipping candles was usually in early-to-mid November. It must be remembered that candlemaking was not the fun hobby then as it is in our modern times; it was a backbreaking, smelly, greasy task. The making of the winter's stock of candles was the special autumnal household duty, and a hard one, too, for the large kettles were tiresome and heavy to handle, and the work was well under way at a very early hour, with the temperatures being just cold enough for quick hardening.
This followed shortly after fall hunting, where the collected waste fat from the butchered animals was used to make tallow for dipping. These precious fats were hoarded carefully, protected in covered crocks. The animal fat was cut into pieces and rendered (melted); it was boiled, caked, pressed, sieved, and purified several times.
Wicks were made from cotton, hemp, or, less often, from milkweed. If they lived near a general store, or maybe if a peddler happened by, thick string could be bought to use as wicks.  
As mentioned earlier, an early hour found the work well under way. A good fire was started in the kitchen fireplace under two vast kettles, which were hung on trammels from the crane, and half filled with boiling water and melted tallow.
At the far end of the kitchen or in an adjoining and cooler room, sometimes in the lean-to, two long poles were laid from chair to chair or stool to stool. Across these poles were laid candle rods, which were about a foot and a half long, and to each rod was attached about six to eight carefully straightened candle-wicks. With the fat/tallow or wax in the pot melted, the wicking from the rods would be dipped into the pot and then returned to its place across the two poles. This process would occur repeatedly as each rod was dipped into the tub of tallow or wax, and with each dip the candles became larger and larger until the desired length and width was had.
My reenactor friend, Micki, shows well how the wicks look after certain numbers of dippings.
It's here that we can quote Susan Blunt, who remembered her 18th century mother during the fall candle dipping season:
"Mother used to dip candles in the fall, enough to last all winter. When a beef was killed in the fall, she would use all the tallow for candles. On the evening before, we would help her prepare the wicks. The boys would cut a lot of rods and she would cut the wicks the length of a candle and then string them on the rods.
"In the morning she would commence her day's work... 
"...She would dip each one in the hot tallow and straighten out the wicks so the candles would be straight when they were finished.
By raising the candles (out of the kettle) at just the right speed and working on a day with a moderate temperature, the fine quality of the candles would be assured. The candles would be cooled overnight and the bottom ends cut off neatly. The finished candles were packed away in a mouse-proof container for safe storage."
Depending on the thickness desired, the wicks were taken off the sticks and another set was tied on.

Now, making candles only during the months of fall wasn't a hard and fast rule, as notations in the diary of Martha Ballard shows us:
Could this be Martha's quill and diary paper?
(taken inside the historic 1760 Daggett Farm House in Greenfield Village)
March 16, 1787
Clear. mr Jonston & wife & Son Left here for home. mr Ballard gone to Capt Sualls. Jon gone to Joseph Fairbankss for hay. Sally Peirce here, mrss Chamln, Savage, Bolton, [Vinc] Savage & Sally Webb also. I made 6 Dos Candles. have been at home. 
November 5, 1787
Clear & pleast. I Came from mr Fosters. we made 25 Dozn of Candles. mrs Voce here. Hannah is not So well as usual, I was Calld about mid night to go See Wilm Whites wife. I was very unwell. Seth Williams after me to See his wife also in travil. mrs White Safe Delivrd of a Son by ye asistance of Moses Whites wife before I arivd. I was Exceeding Sick while gone. 
April 10, 1788
Clear. I have been at home; made 20 dz of Candles. Hannah washt. mr Ballard been at mr Pollards on Business. 
April 12, 1788
Clear. Hannah is much Better. Betsy Chever here. I have made 28 doz of Candles; 6-1/2 lb of the tallow, Cyruss. mr Gillbreath Came here; is unwell. Theophelus & James Burton here also. 

Have you kept track of how many candles Mrs. Ballard made in this thirteen month period? 79 dozen, equaling to a total of 948!
Now, according to the wonderful book, Our Own Snug Fireside, Elizabeth Fuller made sixteen dozen candles in December 1790, and another eighteen dozen the following March, equaling to 408 candles, while Ruth Bascom made twenty four dozen on George Washington's birthday in 1812, which comes to 288 candles.
Though this is only but three examples, methinks that the 500 to 700 candles mentioned earlier could be correct as the "average." But why would Martha Ballard, far from being part of the wealthy class, make so many more than what may be considered the average amount? Well, one must remember that Mrs. Ballard was a midwife and did a lot of 'doctoring' in her area of Maine, including numerous overnight stays caring for patients, therefore may have needed more candle lighting for that purpose.
Pulling new candles from the mold.
Fortunately for early Americans with the want to get them, there were candle making materials available, including metal molds, where the wax could be poured in, set to harden, then removed.
Now, I will quote here the narrative from the  book, Farmer Boy" by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Though it was written about a time a hundred years after the colonial period, the process of candle making was exactly the same:
The end of butchering time was candle making. Mother scrubbed the big lard kettles and filled them with bits of beef fat. Beef fat doesn't make lard; it melts into tallow. While it was melting, Almanzo helped string the candle molds. A candle mold was two rows of tin tubes, fastened together and standing straight up on six feet. There were twelve tubes in a mold.  They were open at the top, but tapered to a point at the bottom, and in each point there was a tiny hole. Mother cut a length of candle-wicking for each tube. She doubled the wicking across a small stick, and twisted it into a cord. She licked her thumb and finger and rolled the end of the cord into a sharp point. When she had six cords on the stick, she dropped them into six tubes, and the sticks lay on top of the tubes.  The points of the cords came through the tiny holes in the points of the tubes, and Almanzo pulled each one tight, and held it tight by sticking a raw potato on the tube's sharp point.
When every tube had its wick, held straight and tight down its middle, Mother carefully poured the hot tallow. She filled every tube to the top. Then Almanzo set the molds outdoors to cool. When the tallow was hard, he brought the mold in. He pulled off the potatoes. Mother dipped the whole mold into the boiling water, and lifted the sticks. Six candles came up on each stick. Then Almanzo cut them off the stick. He trimmed the ends of wicking off the flat ends, and he left just enough wicking to light, on each pointed end.
All one day Almanzo helped mother make candles. That night they had made enough candles to last til butchering time next year
With a candle mold this size, it would be a bit easier to
make a large amount of candles.
By putting the mold into boiling water the way Almanzo's mother did - only for a few seconds - the hardened newly formed candles actually will slide out as easy as melted butter.
I know this to be true, because I do my own candles in this manner, and it works wonderfully.
Besides the animal fat we spoke of earlier, another source of candle wax was beeswax, and many farm families raised bees, not only for their honey and their pollination work, but also to get the sweet-smelling beeswax. Lucky was the colonial farmer with a large hive or two of bees, for, unfortunately, beeswax was not always available in good quantities in many places. It was expensive, and, unless you did have large hives, it was usually only the very rich who could afford to use candles made from it as a daily way of lighting their homes.
Enjoying an evening in the well-to-do home
of Mr. Giddings
You see, unlike the animal-based tallow, beeswax burned pure and cleanly, without producing a smoky flame. It also emitted a pleasant sweet smell rather than the foul, pungent odor of tallow. In colonial America the early settlers found out through their Indian neighbors that they were also able to obtain a very appeasing wax by boiling the berries from the bayberry shrub during the late autumn when the berries were ripest. This wax created a very sweet smelling and good burning candle; however the process of making the bayberry wax was very tedious and tiresome.
Some of those scented candles burned slowly and gave off a fine incense, particularly when the candle was snuffed out. Each morning it was the hired girl or one of the children's jobs to clean and fit the candlesticks with new candles long enough to last an evening and then stored in the kitchen, where they would be easy to find when darkness fell. 
If there was a fire in the hearth that had been for cooking or for warmth, candles might not even be used; as long as one could see well enough to eat, spin, knit, whittle, read the bible or do any number of other duties by the light from the fireplace, a candle would be considered wasteful. I've also read that on a bright moonlit night, especially when there was snow covering the ground, the reflection of light from outside could be bright enough for one to read while indoors!

It's also interesting to note the old saying, "Come at early candlelight," used to invite people to parties, for the phrase itself gives an excellent sense of period.

Benjamin Franklin's first job, at the age of ten, was as a chandler - a candlemaker - in his father's candle shop in Boston. "I was employed in cutting wicks for the candles," he writes in his autobiography, "filling the dipping mold and the molds for the cast candles, attending the shop, going of errands, etc."
Here we find the chandlers of Colonial Williamsburg:
(Photograph courtesy of Rachel West and THIS blog)
One of the more interesting things I learned while speaking with the candle makers at Colonial Williamsburg was that many of the citizens of that city did not make their own candles - at least not through the Revolutionary War period. They left that up to the local chandler, as recently found evidence of a "manufacturer of soap and candles" setting up shop there from the 1770s through the 1780s attests. 
Plenty of wood was needed to keep the fires going the day long to keep the wax melted, and tin molds allowed the chandlers to make candles in far greater quantities than dipping. Of course, that also depended on how many molds a chandler had. For such a place as Williamsburg, I would imagine there were plenty of these molds about, filled continuously for the working people of the city.
(Photograph courtesy of Rachel West and THIS blog)

I'd like to take some time now to look over some of the colonial-era lighting apparatus that was used at the time. What you are about to see are replicas, for originals from that period in time can be not only difficult to come by, but rather expensive when you do.
This first one is a wall sconce.
I bought this from a tinsmith at the Kalamazoo Living History Expo. He had such a variety, but I wanted something a bit more simple, and this is what I chose. I've seen similar styles in paintings of the inside of colonial homes.

Here is a brass candle holder that looks just like a few I've seen in pictures of the inside of some of the homes in Colonial Williamsburg. I've also seen this style in antique stores and on-line antique auctions. It is a fine 18th century replica.

A tinderbox is a container made of metal or wood with a compartment containing flint or steel as well as tinder (anything that can easily catch fire such as dried grass, stick slivers, hay, etc.)  used together to help kindle a fire. Though they were in common use in the 18th and early 19th century household, tinderboxes fell out of general usage by the mid-19th century when friction matches were invented.
I was lucky enough to find this replica at the Greenfield Village gift shop a number of years ago

The next few lanterns and candle holders are interesting in that I not only have seen them in magazines such as Early American Life, but first-hand in historic Greenfield Village, Henry Ford's honoring of America's past. The thing that most impresses me about the objects inside the historic homes there is that they must have at least three primary sources before anything is placed inside. So this helps me greatly when I search for accurate replicas I would like to own.
But I just don't leave it to their sources: I, too, will research the items before purchasing, just so I can back myself up as well.
This first item seems to be the subject of debate of late, for there are some who feel this candle holder was not inside the homes of North America.
I beg to differ, for I have researched it and found that, though it may not have been in every colonial household, it definitely was here in North America:
A rushlight is a type of candle or miniature torch formed by soaking the dried pith (inside of the stem) of the marshy rush plant in fat or grease, allowing it to burn slowly once lit. For several centuries rushlights were a common source of artificial light for poor people throughout the British Isles (including my own ancestors). They cost almost nothing to produce and it was believed to give a better light than some poorly dipped candles.  Rushlights also have a scoop for a candle, which was more expensive to burn.
For the folks who used rushlights to get some light in their homes after dark, using a candle would have been reserved for special occasions such as a holiday.
Many of the English who were able to cross the ocean to the colonies brought their rushlights with them and can still be found in historic home museums, such as at the 1750 Daggett farmhouse now located in Greenfield Village. 
In fact, I just so happen to have a picture of a rushlight in use inside the Daggett house right here, though, like mine in the previous picture, it is not burning a rush pith but, instead, is using the candle.

This next lighting apparatus I found to be very interesting from a historical standpoint. When I visited the Daggett House in 2017, I noticed this particular style of lantern hanging in the kitchen:
It is a lantern made especially for the 1750 
Daggett Farm House in historic Greenfield Village.
It is very similar to an original from the 18th century you see here:
(Picture from THIS site) 
What is so interesting is that, before the widespread 
availability of glass, cattle horn was heated and 
flattened to separate the layers that were peeled thin enough 
to permit light to pass through, 
and these thin sheets of horn glazing were used to 
protect a candle or other flame against wind, 
similar to a pane of glass.
They could also use talc, bladder or oiled paper

Inside the Daggett House we find the “Lanthorn,” which is an archaic word for lantern because of the translucent sheets of horn. By the way, note that the bottom of this particular lanthorn, where the candle sits, comes out.
 As glass grew cheaper it gradually ousted all other materials, but the horn lantern was still being used in the early part of the 19th century.
Lucky for me, I found someone who made replica lanthorns.
Of course, if you know anything at all about me, you would know
that I would do my best to purchase one.
And I did - -
This is how my lanthorn looks when lit in the evening.
It truly does give off a period glow unlike nearly any other I own.
I feel it's very cool that modern tinsmiths are learning this lost art of horn paning. Yes, you can thank living historians, whether they work at such places as Greenfield Village or Colonial Williamsburg, or even those who are under the reenactor umbrella, for keeping such crafts alive.

The next stop along the tour of my replica lighting apparatuses is this colonial-era wooden lantern. I've seen enough of these types of lanterns in various 18th century house museums in person and in pictures that I have little doubt they are correct for the period.

In fact, once again inside the historic 1750 Daggett Farm House, we see a wooden lantern in use. Greenfield Village is pretty particular  - dare I say anal - about what they allow to be shown and used inside their historic homes; as I mentioned, they require three sources before an item can be displayed. And that's a good thing...a very good thing, in fact, for us history nerds!

And here are my two above lanterns together in a Christmas scene.

Many of you may know that I am a fan of the AMC series "Turn: Washington's Spies," and, even though the show may not be 100% historically accurate, their accessories are pretty much spot on.
So, as I watched an episode near the end of Season 2, where Abraham Woodhall and Anna Strong were decoding a message in Abe's burned out cellar (yep, the picture above is from that episode, thanks to Marlene Di Via!), I noticed this particular lantern playing a prominent role in the accessory department. 
After doing a bit of searching, look what I found:
Yes, this is the one and the same style used on the show.
Now, we know we cannot depend on Hollywood to teach us accurate history, but "Turn" did a very good job with many of their accessories, including this lantern, which is of a style accurate to the times of the Revolutionary War.
Yes, once again, we see this same lantern used inside an 18th century log cabin at historic Greenfield Village.
And kind of cool to have after watching "Turn" and seeing it in a museum.

And last fall my daughter had a candle-dipping party with some of her high school friends, all of whom were very excited to come over and take part in this ancient craft.
Obviously, none of the girls had lived in colonial times otherwise they wouldn't be so excited to make them!
Here are candles made by my daughter and I (with a little help from a few of her friends, too) - dipped and from the mold.

Finally, not all artificial lighting in colonial times came from candles. They also had a very early style of "oil" lighting, the betty lamp, which has been around in some form or another for hundreds of years.  
Betty lamps were probably the most widely used lighting device in Colonial America:
The top picture shown here is a replica betty lamp that I purchased from the reenacting site, Jas Townsend
No, I have not tried to light it as of this time.
Contrary to what many believe, oil lamps were used in the 18th century, with the most common referred to as betty lamps. The body of a betty lamp is cast with one solid piece of iron with a nose or spout for the wick. In these lamps were burned any grease, scraps of fat, fish, or whale oil. Wicks were usually pieces of twisted cotton rag, and when lit, they smoked considerably. The burning of fish oil had a rank smelling and gave the poorest light, which is why grease and fats were better. With whale oil, which was likely burned in betty lamps after 1760, burned the most satisfactory light, equal to two ordinary candles. 
These lamps had certain advantages over the tallow candle; there was no elaborate preparation or constant care, and there was the possibility of being used to cast light downward without spilling grease.

These lamps were to be set on the table, or to be hung on a hook on the wall, or on the back of a chair, or wherever convenience might require their placement.
(The picture of the lit betty lamp is one I 'borrowed' from the Jas. Townsend website - see link below)

The light at its brightest...
(taken inside my own home - another little night time colonial scenario)
By the mid-19th century, the much brighter oil lamps had a strong foothold in American society and candles began their fade as a necessity, although they were still in great use, especially on the more rural area farms. I have read in numerous books citing diaries of many folks still making their own candles well into the early part of the 20th century. In fact, in Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells the tale of young Almanzo helping his mother make candles with a mold, and this was in the 1860s.
I am happy to say that I also dip our own candles that we burn during the months of autumn. While putting on our fall harvest presentation at one of our reenactments, I have made a presentation out of it, and I am always delighted to prove to the naysayers just how brilliant our ancestors were in their survival without our modern methods, including the old-fashioned way of removing candles from tin molds by way of a quick "dip" in boiling water.
I have very fond memories of my own mother lighting candles just after Labor Day. As soon as the air began to turn crisp and the shadows of the sun grew longer while the days grew shorter, she would begin her annual fall ritual (as would my father by lighting fires in our fireplace). These are some of my favorite reminisces that I share with my own children as we sit around our dinner table, a lit candle in the center, shortly after Labor Day, with a crispness in the air...
A few of my favorites all lit up for ya.
Until next time, see you in time.

  The above candle information came from a variety of sources, including: 
~an on line source by

To read a little about my historic lighting collection, click HERE
To read about celebrating autumn past, click HERE
Celebrating a colonial Christmas - click HERE
An overview of the colonial times, click HERE

~   ~   ~


Unknown said...

A very interesting and informative article. One thing I will add to your comments about Turn. I can't recall a show that was not only solid with their stuff and they did an especially good job with light or lack thereof. It is so hard for anything filmed to show a dark world. They did such a good job overall.

Historical Ken said...

I am in full agreement with you. Most folks don't notice details such as lighting.
Thank you.