Wednesday, September 14, 2016

In the Nighttime: Living in the Age of Candles in Colonial Times - The Light at its Brightest

~Revised November 2020~
I had just completed a posting on how our 18th century ancestors spent their nighttime and was ready to publish here on Passion for the Past,  but before I did I,  for some reason,  went to my posting on candles and holders - Candles in Colonial Times - and I am glad I did,  for it suddenly occurred  to me that my new nighttime post would fit in perfectly with my candles post.  So I blended the two together and made one cohesive article.
It's with this revision and re-writing that I hope to give the reader a greater insight into the lives of those who were around during the earlier part of our nation's history,  and hope that you will have a clearer idea what it was like during this time so long ago.  And with this lesson on 18th century nighttime adventures,  I have kept and included all of the pictures from my original  "Candles in Colonial Times"  posting plus added a few more.
I hope you enjoy it.

~   ~   ~

"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~

We often speak of what it was like,  and what it looked like,  during the nighttime in the pre-electric era of our history.  It's unfortunate that a myth continues to persist telling the tale that folks in the good old colony days went to bed when the sun went down,  no matter what time of day or season of the year it was when the sun set.
Well,  I am here to tell you that,  no,  this is simply not necessarily true.  People stayed awake past nightfall.  Just like in our modern times.
That's what I hope to show you here,  with a few evening photos from Colonial Williamsburg as well as with the help from my nighttime experiences at historic Greenfield Village.  You see,  it's a rare occasion when visitors can enjoy the splendor and solitude of Greenfield Village as the sun begins to set.  Since being inside this wonderful institution after dark is a rarity for most of us  (aside from Holiday Nights at Christmas time),  I took advantage of the opportunity to photograph a colonial scene as I was situated in the back garden of the circa 1750 Daggett House,  hanging around back there,  camera in hand,  from the sunset to twilight time and into the night.
I believe it makes for a good beginning to this week's post...

~~ ~

So let us visit that world of nighttime past and imagine what it was like in those days of the founding generation:
I stood there behind the house in the back corner of the garden...
a-watching the sun disappear from view while the darkness of 
night prepared for its reign.
If one could peak into the past to a time when the Daggett house was young,  this is what they might see at this time of day:
I had an opportunity to enjoy the beginning of the end of day from 
inside the house,  though not on the same night as the garden pictures.

I've never been in this,  my favorite of all the structures inside Greenfield Village,  during this time of the day,  and I got a feeling of calm as the shadows seeping in through the windows grew long.
The natural light of the waning day shows in these two 
photographs.  Both were taken on the same day in late 
November about five minutes before closing time.  
And back to the garden we go...
The following few Daggett garden photos were taken in mid-September.
I took a picture every few minutes as the late-summer evening 
sky removed the colors from my sight.
The poetry and music of the Moody Blues filled my head as the night time of the past opened up:
Watching light fade as the Daggett Farm House became a 
silhouette against the veils of deepening blue.

When the sun goes down and the clouds all frown, 
night has begun for the sunset...
Shadows on the ground,  never make a sound,
fading away in the sunset
But something almost magical began to occur:  just as the last glimmer of light began to fade,   new light from the sky began to glow:
And this last remnants of the sun's rays against the night time sky grew brighter
with each passing minute..
And then...
A spectacular last burst of the day's glow gave a show like nothing I've seen.
And I was thrilled that my camera - this old point-and-shoot from 
2009 - could capture a touch of the brilliance of God's glory.

And finally...
Night had now become day for everyone...
And we see a tiny flicker of a candle in the window.

Shadows of the night...
(yes,  this is actually shadows of my wife and I
taken in Colonial Williamsburg)
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.  That is, until sunset and twilight time rolls around.
Then,  once again,  as the quote at the top of this posting states,  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.
So we would survive,  providing it wasn't too cold outside.
But,  how would we do in the,  say,  1760s or 1770s?
In an age before widespread light pollution,  the illuminations of the moon and the stars were far more useful;  on a clear night,  starlight alone cast shadows.  People knew their neighborhoods intimately - every tree,  every hedge,  every post - and could move about without much trouble,  even on the darkest of nights.
With that in mind,  let us visualize what nighttime actually looked like during the 18th and 19th centuries.  To do this,  I culled information from astronomer John Bortle,  who came up with a scale to measure the darkness of the sky,  calling it the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale.  It was first published in Sky & Telescope magazine to help amateur astronomers understand the amount of light pollution present in their observation sites,  giving them a scale to work with in their quest to see the cosmos.  The scale is a 1-9 numbered scale,  with a Class 1 sky having zero light pollution and Class 9 having the most.
The Bortle Scale can show us not only our sky's brightness in our 
modern day,  but can help to give us an idea and an understanding 
of the nighttime skies of long ago.
 And with his scale,  John Bortle also gives an explanation of what is seen and not seen for each class of darkness:
Living a half-mile outside of Detroit,  it is unfortunate that I fall somewhere right around Class 6:  Bright Suburban Sky;  I can see the stars,  but nowhere near what those with lower ratings are able to see.
Traveling to the more northern regions of the lower peninsula of my state of Michigan does allow me to see the splendor of about a Class 2.  However,  I am certain there are regions in our upper peninsula where it may be a Class 1.

As the foreboding darkness cloaked the landscape,  folks retreated to their abodes to a-wait the liberating first morning light,  many fearing ghosts,  specters,  apparitions,  and even criminals and other creatures of the night.  Goblins,  imps,  fairies,  and trolls were thought to do a lot of mischief.  This was especially true around Hallowe'en;  it was the night spirits were out,  and farmers bolted their doors and avoided walking alone at night.  This was the night when doors were blocked with carts,  or attacked with a fusillade of turnips.  Plows and carts were carried off and hidden.  Gates were taken off their hinges and thrown into a neighboring ditch or pond.  Horses were led from the stables and left in the fields a few miles away.
But this did not happen only on Hallowe'en...
Lighting a candle in preparation for the evening activities
(Picture courtesy of Fred Blystone from Colonial Williamsburg)
The pre-industrial night truly was widely regarded with dread and fascination in equal measure:  "I curse the night,"  confessed William Drummond in 1616,  "but doth from day me hide."  Or,  as Thomas Tryon,  a writer of popular self-help books,  put it rather more pompously in 1691:  "Let the night teach us what we are,  and the day what we should be."
Low level of light - - - 
A solitary candle to light the night - 
anymore than that would be wasteful.
With an electric light not even a thought,  much less a reality in the colonial times,  a dim visual world began where life centered around the flicker of a candle and,  in cooler weather,  the warming flames of a hearth.  This low level of lighting created only pockets of brightness,  leaving most of the room in darkness.  Forget about the Hollywood movies showing people enjoying a pleasant eve after sundown reading or writing by candlelight - I've tried and it's pretty darn difficult to do for any length of time,  though certainly not impossible.  As Laura Wirt wrote in 1818,  "writing by a dim firelight. I can scarcely see."  
Buried in nighttime blackness in the wintertime reduced the once family-sized home into a single room in many cases,  for many families closed off the parlors to decrease the amount of warming space.   With a dim glow,  life centered around the hearth or stove for warmth and possibly a candle for any of the limited activities of which they may have partaken.  Activities were limited to things that didn’t require the best vision,  and storytelling – including Bible stories & family lore - were popular.  But it’s also said that the folks during the pre-electric light-era could actually see better in darkness than modern people can. 
"Possibly as a result of long dependence upon strong electric lighting,  we seem to have much poorer night vision today than the average man had a century or two ago,"  wrote historian Eric Sloane in his Seasons of America Past book.  And it makes sense when you think reasonably about it;  while our entire world is seemingly engulfed in electric lighting,  citizens of the 18th and 19th centuries lived in natural light as well as in natural darkness,  for with candles and hearth giving off little light,  the sense of sight would naturally be stronger.
However,  just because the sun went down did not mean the people went to bed;  this was their time for reading,  writing letters,  filling out a ledger,  writing in a diary,  sewing,  mending,  spinning,  and other necessities,  as well as also socializing,  singing,  storytelling,  games,  the aforementioned bible recitations & family history lore,  and other ways to pass the time.  Many times,  especially in the coldness of winter,  the glow of the hearth was sufficient enough for any of these activities,  thus saving on candles and fuel.
In the cool of the winter, a fire in the hearth may be all you will need for light  (and warmth).  But in the heat of a hot summer night,  you might want to refrain from such a large fire and use the candles instead.
Emily Barnes tells of her grandmother telling stories,  and  "how eagerly we sought our places in the sitting room around the low-cushioned chair,  which was placed in the warmest corner,  the room all aglow with the bright, blazing fire.  'There is no need to light the candles,'  she would say;  and we were glad to avoid the interruption occasioned by snuffing them,  especially when so unfortunate to snuff them out."
(Snuffing in the old days meant to trim the wick rather than putting out the flame as we know it to mean today.)
It was in this clustered manner that the family ensured survival.
Another tiny flicker of a flame from a candle in the window 
of the Daggett House.
The light at its brightest.
With darkness king of the 24 hour day,  it dictated daily activities.  Being buried in the dark shadows of nighttime reduced the once family-sized home into a single room in many cases,  for many families closed off the parlors except for special occasions such as having special guests such as out-of-town family or the local minister visit.
And in the cold months of winter,  rooms were sealed off for warmth.  It was easier to heat a single room than multiple rooms.  It also decreased the amount of light needed,  thus saving on candles.
Working by the light of day or by candle light at night,  being inside the Daggett House gives us a very good idea of what it was like for our 18th century colonial ancestors.  However sparingly,  candles were still needed more often than not in the nighttime hours.  As one woman reminisced:  "When evening came we used to set a candle on a candle stand and pull the stand to the center of the room so that four people could sit around it and see to work."
Yes, there were chores to be done after the evening meal:  furniture to build,  tools to repair,  beer to brew.  Women carded and spun wool,  and then wove it.  There were parlor games to play,  folk tales to tell,  gossip to swap,  friends and family to entertain.  The literate few read,  or wrote.  And then,  by 9pm or at the latest 10,  to bed.
A time to write in the journal...
And it was up until the mid-19th century that the candle provided the artificial lighting for most,  with the gradual increase in the use of the oil lamp in the latter half of the 1800s,  though candles were still in popular use well into the 20th century.
Reading and writing in the 1770s allows 
for a pocket of light.
The solitary luminance from my 
candle is all I need.
However,  90 years into the future shows us what the 1860s will bring:
The great-grandson of the person in the picture above this one  (lol):
It is plain to see that the improvement of lighting devices,  such as 
the type of oil lamps you see here,  do give off a much brighter 
luminance than candle light. 
These lamps are actual antiques from the 1880s.

This low level of lighting,  even with a 19th century oil lamp,  created only pockets of brightness,  leaving most of the room in darkness.  As Laura Wirt wrote in 1818,  "writing by a dim firelight.  I can scarcely see."  And Frederick Law Olmstead,  in 1853,  was chastised by the servant when he asked for a candle so that he might write a letter  (I am quoting it here the way it was originally written):  "Not if you hab a fire,"  the servant told him.  "Can't you see by da light of da fire?  When a gentleman hab a fire in his room,  dey don't count he wants no mo'  light  'n dat."
Forget about the Hollywood movies showing a brightened room by candlelight  (or oil lamp);  I believe most of us have had the candle light experience and know better,  especially with our  'modern'  eyes used to the electric light.
My daughter reading by both oil lamp and candle light while 
dressed in her 1860s clothing.

A feeble circle of light emanates from the cabin's tallow candles with extra illumination from the fireplace.
It is highly unlikely that two candles would be burning in such a tiny area 
as shown in this single-room late 18th century cabin,  but it does give a fair idea of what it was like to be shrouded in the darkness of a long January night.

(1780s McGuffey Cabin - Greenfield Village)
Night was not only a great leveler; it overturned the social order of the day.  Apprentices,  servants,  the poor,  the excluded and the underprivileged could for once escape the eyes of their masters,  employers and oppressors:  darkness was their mask.
Levi Hutchins,  on a cold winter evening in 1810,  remained at his
brother's home instead of returning to his own home due to the
"social circle of my brother's household,  cheered by the mingled 
light of the bright woodfire and his domestic tallow-candles,  
(which)  caused so much happiness that I was induced to
postpone our return till morning
For most,  these candles were sparingly used.  This attitude was not unusual,  for it was a great luxury for many to have candles.  George Channing recalled his youth in Rhode Island where  "little children were obliged to find their way to bed in the dark."
This would include adults as well:
To find your way while inside the bedchamber, 
one must bring their light along with them.
In this room,  however,  I was fortunate to have a fire
in the hearth as well,  which helped to keep the room

not only warmer,  but a bit brighter as well.

Safe within my abode.
It's easy to see that even with two lanterns there 
are still only pockets of light in a colonial room.
Then there were the imagined enemies.  The darkness,  pitch black and impenetrable,  was the realm of the hobgoblin,  the sprite,  the will-o'-the-wisp,  the boggle  (a specter that would scare horses at night),  the kelpie  (a water spirit,  usually having the form of a horse,  reputed to cause drownings or to warn those in danger of drowning),  the boggart  (ghost)  and the troll.  Witches,  obviously,  were  "abroad"  (a weighty word to describe the now-banal business of venturing outdoors after dark).  If you were seriously unlucky,  you could run into Satan himself.  To ward off these evil spirits,  we prayed – and we prayed a lot.
Heading into the outskirts of town...
Locals usually had little problem finding 
their way in the darkest of nights, 
but one never knew what was lurking 
about in the shadows~
But there were also the real enemies.  Imagination only can picture what it was like two and a half centuries ago,  on a dark night,  with reckless bands of  "Cowboys"  and  "Skinners"  abroad in the land,  for the night was also the realm of the criminal:  the vandal,  the thief,  the murderer.
Doctor James Thacher kept a journal of his time in the Revolutionary War and one entry makes specific reference to these raiders:
"Those of the inhabitants of the neutral ground who were tories,  have joined their friends in New York,  and the whigs have retired into the interior of our country.  Some of each side have taken up arms,  and become the most cruel and deadly foes.  There are-within the British lines-banditti consisting of lawless villains,  who devote themselves to the most cruel pillage and robbery among the defenceless inhabitants between the lines,  many of whom they carry off to New York, after plundering their houses and farms.  These shameless marauders have received the names of Cow-boys and Skinners."
The only protection against all these ne'er-do-wells was the night watch.
And even then...
However,  there certainly were street lamps in some areas.  While the colonial countryside remained dark after nightfall for at least another century,  American cities in the mid-1700s experimented with illumination of streets and walkways,  inventing fixtures which included candles,  torches,  and oil lamps,  that later influenced all forms of exterior lighting throughout the country.
In some towns,  the responsibility for street lighting fell to the owners of homes bordering the street.
A light in front for visitors
In the early 18th century,  the city of New York required its residents to maintain lights in their street-front windows:
“In houses that stand somewhat back from the street,  with a little garden in front,  it is well  (particularly when visitors are expected)  to place a lamp on a shelf fixed for the purpose,  in the fan-light over the front door.  This will light the guests on their way from the gate to the doorstep,  and is a great convenience on a dark or wet night.  Most of the best houses have permanent lamps at the foot of the door-steps.”
During a trip to London,  in 1757,  Philadelphia Postmaster Benjamin Franklin studied London’s dingy streetlights and figured he could do better.  Franklin put his inventive genius to work designing a new style of lamp,  adding a funnel at the top and air vents in the bottom so smoke could quickly escape.  Franklin said this design kept the lamps from getting dirty or growing dark in a few hours,  like in London.  Franklin’s invention earned him a reputation as the father of the American street light.

Farmers frequently did their haying at night,  using the moon and stars for their illumination,  and in this way they could take advantage of the coolness of a summer night.
Now,  the photo below justly shows a Class 7 or 8 on the Bortle Scale mentioned toward the beginning of this post - it actually would have been much darker than we see here,  though the sky is gray,  so I suppose we can take some levity in that.  It is also the wrong season for haying in the image,  though it does give you an inkling of what it was like to see men gathering together at night,  perhaps completing a late harvest,  with maybe cabbages,  brussels sprouts,  lettuce,  and a few late carrots awaiting to be pick.
A bonfire for warmth would not be unheard of during the 
evening hours of a late fall harvest workday.

(Photo courtesy of Lee Cagle,  with slight modification from yours truly)
Nighttime was also a good time for engagements.  Too busy during the day for social activities,  young people,  according to historian Jack Larkin,  looked forward to dances,  balls,  sleigh riding,  and skating in the evening,  many times staying out until past midnight.
A young female mill-worker in Lowell,  Massachusetts,  in a letter from 1841,  described  "union meeting"  arranged as social visits for young folks to get to know each other.  Just after nine o'clock in the evening were the labors of the day closed,  the female members sat along one row of chairs,  directly opposite a row of males,  spitboxes in between them.  They talked about  "raising sheep and kine (archaic plural form for cow),  herbs and vegetables,  building walls and raising corn,  heating the oven and pearing apples,  killing rats and gathering nuts,  spinning tow and weaving sieves,  making preserves and mending clothes - in short,  everything they do will afford some little conversation."
These sessions lasted about 30-45 minutes.  A bell then rang to signal the end and each member returned to his or her chamber.

The old City of Williamsburg,  like many cities and towns across the colonies,  celebrated night life in areas almost exclusively for men:
A modern light brightens the nighttime of Colonial Williamsburg,  
and due to safety reasons for the myriads of visitors,  rightly so.
Men in towns and cities took themselves to an alehouse...or an inn...or a tavern...or...well,  let's allow one who was there  tell us,  for Mr. J. F. D.  Smyth,  who travelled through Williamsburg about 1765,  had this to say about the distinction between taverns,  inns,  or ordinaries:
"There is no distinction here between inns,  taverns,  ordinaries and public houses;  they are all in one and are known by the appelation of taverns,  public house or ordinary on them,  which in the general acceptance of the names here are signified by terms.  They are all very indifferent indeed compared to the inns in England."
As the cloak of darkness covers the sky,  taverns,  such
as Shields in Williamsburg,  Virginia,  becomes a beacon
of light and entertainment for the locals of the city.
I found this snippet from the journal of David Meade Randolph,  written when he was a student at William and Mary College in 1779:  "On the 22nd of February,  1779,  the students of William and Mary College and the representative inhabitants of Williamsburg celebrated Washington's birth night with a ball at the Raleigh  (Tavern).  Governor Patrick Henry was waited on in order to secure his signature as a patron.  Governor Henry refused saying  'He could not think of any kind of rejoicing at a time when our country was engaged in war,  with such gloomy prospects.'  The ball,  nevertheless,  was given."
'Twas a men's world in the evening at a tavern.
Attributed to Joseph Highmore,  1692–1780,  British,  Figures in a Tavern or Coffee House,  ca. 1725 or after 1750,  Oil on panel,  Yale Center for British Art

Though in this painting we see a young couple enjoying an 
evening out at Buckman's Tavern in Lexington,  Massachusetts.
Or maybe she is a servant.
"Games of various sorts were played.  Among those most popular were:  faro,  loo,  cribbage,  chess,  backgammon,  hazard &c.
Gambling was the sport of the age and many were the card games indulged in at taverns."
With a dim glow,  a candle would give little enhancement to any of the activities of which our ancestors may have partaken. 
Now here is an interesting short  'study'  on the brightness of candlelight:
Below here you see a colonial tavern scene from the TV show  "Turn:Washington's Spies."  Now,  this show does a very good job with period sets and accessories  (even though historical accuracy is not as strong as we would like it to be),  and this tavern looks perfect.
However,  I don't believe in real life it would have been this bright.
And I am quite certain not as many candles would have been used as what we see here,  though I may be wrong;  I have not seen an 
inventory of tavern candle supplies. 
Now in the picture below,  we see a much more historically accurate look of an evening at a tavern.  This is a photo I took inside an actual candlelit tavern in the evening.  Yes,  the chandeliers on the ceiling would have added to the illumination,  but not nearly what we see in the previous picture.
This is the Eagle Tavern,  built in 1830,  and is now situated inside historic Greenfield Village.  During our Civil War reenactment there they will sometimes open up the tavern
at night for period-
dress participants only.  It is one of the highlights of the weekend.
On a smaller scale,  the next image I have is of the back room in my home where I frequently turn off the electric light,  allowing only for the flame from a candle or oil lamp.
There are seven candles and two oils lamps burning in my 15x25 
square foot room,  and this is about as bright as it gets.
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?
Making candles at my home~
It is an annual  "chore"  that friends
and family tend to enjoy every October.
But I found it to be 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. 
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.  
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
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 to the kids.
And natural lighting through windows has calming effects on our emotions as well.

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 when available,  would help out as well.
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 linen thread,  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 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)

Needless to say,  with all that goes into candle making,  lighting one during daytime hours would be a waste.
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.
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 did use 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 every fall I have a candle-dipping party with a few of my mostly non-reenacting friends, all who are usually very excited to come over and take part in this ancient craft.
Obviously,  none of my friends had lived in colonial times otherwise they wouldn't be so excited to make them!
Here are candles made by my friends and I,  
including a few dipped and others 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 smell 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. 
While putting on our fall harvest presentation at one of our reenactments,  I have made a presentation out of candle dipping,  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.
Having a greater understanding of the more,  shall we say,  mundane  parts of life that few tend to think about is what,  to me,  brings the past to life just as much as clothing or any other accessories. For they lived it,  like we live ours,  without a thought otherwise.
Yet I still consider it frustrating and annoying  when we lose power.

~   ~   ~

One more thing before I take my leave:
I have been reading about something called  "second sleep,"  where people would awaken in the middle of the night to read,  pray,  perhaps even visit with neighbors.  This may have been true in the Middle Ages and Renaissance,  but  further research has shown that references to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 1600s,  and over the course of the 18th century and into the 19th had receded entirely from our social consciousness.

~   ~   ~

Until next time,  see you in time.

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

Some of the information here came, sometimes word for word,  from an article in the December/January 2000 issue of History Magazine, written by Barbara Krasner-Khait.
Also,  from the book The Lowell Offering
A posting HERE about nighttime written by Jon Henley was a wonderful source.
Some of my  'dark sky'  information came from HERE.
The skinners quote came from HERE.
Some of the street light information came from THIS book and THIS website

Some of the tavern information came from THIS Colonial Williamsburg site.
First and second sleep information came from THIS page

Samson's Historical carries a wide-ranging collection of period replicated lanterns.

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

~   ~   ~


Anonymous 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.

Unknown said...

Nice article enjoyed it very much. I miss Williamsburg and need to visit

Daisy Debs said...

Excellent !

Lady Locust said...

Hubby and I have read about the second sleep also, and he in particular tends toward that nature. I love the kindly ol' glow of your tin lantern. Growing up, we would be without power for a week at a time. We were used to it. When my children were young, my son in particular loved it when the power went out. He and I are the "old souls."
Am thoroughly enjoying your blog (little by little).