Coxsackie Antique Center

Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow

Lighting in America

by Bill Johns

From the earliest "Candlewood" made of pine knots and heartwood, to hand dipped and molded candles, to oil lamps, gas lights, and electric bulbs, lighting has always been an important facet of everyday life, both in increasing the hours of productivity and in enhancing the quality of life throughout the long dark winters.

Candlesticks (made to "stick" candles into) were made of many materials - especially brass, but also iron, tin, glass, wood, and pottery. Silver candlesticks were rare until silverplate became available in Victorian times, and the sterling candlesticks passed down from one generation to another constituted a major part of the family heirlooms. The sliding "push-up" candlesticks were developed to hold a tall candle safely while allowing it to be burned right down to the end. The candle was slid into a metal tube with only the upper portion exposed. It was then "pushed up" as it burned down. This was important when the price (in labor and materials) of candles was considerable.

Typical household candles were made from animal fat (tallow). They were either hand dipped or formed in candle molds. Hand dipped candles are made by dipping a wick repeatedly into a melted pot of tallow. Each dipping adds another layer to the candle which eventually becomes large enough to take on a typical candle shape. Molded candles are formed by inserting a wick into a candle shaped tin or pewter tube and pouring the wax into the tube. Typically, candle molds contain multiple candle forms. Once made, they were placed in candle storage containers, made of metal, leather, or wood. Special candles were made from bee's wax, which provided brighter light with little smoke, or from boiling bayberries for their wax. Both were more expensive and saved for special uses, such as holidays.

Candles were lit from the fireplace or by use of the tinder box, containing an easily lit material (such as charred linen) and a steel and flint. Once-a spark had ignited the linen, a "spunk" of sulfur coated wood was used to transfer the fire to the wick.

Early matches of sulfur, lead, cholide and sugar were ignited by dipping them into sulfuric acid. Friction matches (sometimes called "Lucifers") were lit on sandpapers. Matches as we know them did not become available until the mid 1800s. Because of their flammability, they were stored in match safes to prevent rubbing and to contain the flame if one should erupt. Safety matches, which separate the ingredients into the match head and the striker strip, replaced these in late Victorian times.

Although lamps probably arrived on the Mayflower, at that time they generally consisted of suspended saucers of grease with rag wicks. They gave good light, but were smelly, smoky and dangerous. Whale oil lamps were an improvement, and Benjamin Franklin further improved them by doubling their light with two wick-tubes. These lights became common, and relatively inexpensive along the coast. A bit later, camphine, a mixture of potentially explosive turpentine and alcohol, provided a nice white light.

Distillation of petroleum around 1850 introduced kerosene, with its clear light for reading, working, or entertaining. Much safer than camphine, brighter and more convenient than candles, kerosene (and to some extent gasoline) lamps became the major source of light in most homes in Victorian times, especially in rural areas. At about the same time in urban areas, manufactured gas, made from the heating of coal, was piped into homes, providing convenient, inexpensive, relatively safe lighting well into the 20th century. Oil and gas lamps were often of metal or glass, with brass burners and glass chimneys, which kept the flame protected and steady and intensified the light. The bases were often ornate and highly decorative, and are still prized today whether they have been electrified or not. If you are considering electrifying such a lamp, be sure to use an electrical fixture that does not involve drilling holes through the lamp, and be sure to save the oil burner.

The light from candlesticks and oil lamps was manipulated in various ways to augment brightness and usefulness. Sconces or reflectors mounted behind the light source were usually metal, glass or mirror to reflect and direct the light, maximizing its glow. (A cast iron bracket lamp with the original reflector is a find!) Pier mirrors were also placed on walls behind lamps to reflect the light and provide the illusion of a sunlit window. Additionally, there were decorative shades which clipped onto candles or rested over oil lamp chimneys to shield the eyes from glare. Among the latter are the classic "Gone with the Wind" lamps (often abbreviated to "GWTW" lamps), with hand painted base and shade. When purchasing one of these, be sure the entire lamp is old. As with any pricey antique, these lamps are being reproduced today and sold as antiques. Be sure the lamp's central core is old; that the glass base and shade match in decoration and type of glass; and that both are not modern imitations. Most of the value of these lamps lies in the beautiful hand painted glass. If the pieces aren't right, the value of the lamp is minimal. ("GWTW" lamps are so named because they appear in the 1937 movie, but they are actually a late Victorian era creation rather than a civil war era lamp.)

Electric lights became common in the early 20th century, and many of the antique lights that come to mind - Tiffany, Deco, brass floor lamps, for instance - are the electric ones which are usable in our homes today. When adding one of these decorative lights to your collection, be sure that the cord and switch are safe: no fraying, loose connections, etc. If in doubt, have it looked at by a lamp repair person. If repairs are being made, insist on thread wrapped insulated wire matching similar to the original wire rather than the new rubber coated wire used in modern lamps.

[Much of the historical information contained in this article is from the New York State Museum publication "Lighting Methods of Other Days," circa 1950. A copy is available in the Coxsackie Antique Center reference library.]

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