Evil smelling things… Anne stripped off her coat and eyed the half-gone tallow candle in the dish. I wager there’s more of pig than sheep in those candles… from THE TURNING OF ANNE MERRICK
We take it for granted, don’t we? It’s dark and you turn the switch. There it is – hanging from the ceiling, or maybe aimed at your work surface, or even held in your hand – odor-free, safe, brilliant light. So conditioned am I to this convenience, when a bad storm strikes, and our power goes out, I stumble about the house trying to get to my stash of emergency candles by flicking on the useless wall switches along the way.
Living in a well-illuminated world is a relatively new phenomenon. Though it can be hard to imagine the darkness of the 18th century world when you live in a big metropolitan and light-polluted area like Chicago, I keep lighting at the forefront of my mind as I imagine and write stories to take myself and my readers back in time. Since research in means and methods is essential in order for me to feel and write a credible historical fiction, I have been known to go out and tramp the northwoods at midnight to get a sense for the natural light cast by a waxing or waning moon, or to find out how long it really takes for our eyes to adjust to the light cast by a star-filled sky. I bought a reproduction of a pierced tin lantern and equipped it with a beeswax candle to experience for myself exactly how it might light my path on a moonless night.
When “lighting” my 18th century scenes, I am limited to flame-based light — the minimal golden glow derived from hearthfire or campfire, and the more portable forms of pinepitch torches, candles, oil lamps and rush lights. It has helped me to view the works of “candlelight painters” like Carravagio, de la Tour, and van Schendel to feel this sans-electricity atmosphere.
Candles – the go-to light for most historical fiction writers, were in reality, a very expensive commodity and used with some discretion. Candles were not generally used to illuminate a room, but more often carried from place to place to illuminate a small area. The candles of yore were nowhere near the equivalent to the even burning, scented paraffin tapers and pillars we pick up at the Bed Bath and Beyond. If you were burning a candle back in 1777, it was most likely one made from tallow with a plaited cotton wick, and even those varied in quality depending on the type of tallow used and the quality of the wick fiber. Tallow candles generated a light that was strong smelling, smoky and wavering at best. Sweet-smelling, gentle glowing beeswax candles were quite an extravagance for most Americans, and prior to the Revolution, all candles were heavily taxed, and used judiciously by even the wealthy.
Colonial Americans contributed to lighting technology when they discovered the grayish green berries of bayberry bushes produced a naturally aromatic, clean-burning wax. Both gathering the huge amount of “candleberries” necessary (15 pounds of berries for one pound of wax) and extracting the wax was a tedious process that produced few candles. For this reason bayberry candles were cherished and used for special occasions.
Neither beeswax or tallow candles had the stability to fare very well in un-airconditioned hot weather. A summer day would cause expensive tapers to droop into uselessness. A great advance in candle technology came about in the mid 18th century with the development of the spermaceti candle. Spermaceti candles were made from the waxy substance derived from the head of a sperm whale. Stable, smokeless, clean-smelling and emitting a pure white light, spermaceti candles were also very expensive – but they cast best quality light at the time, and became the standard by which all light is measured. The terms “candlepower” and “footcandle” are based on the amount of light a spermaceti candle of a certain size produces at a distance of one foot from the flame.
People who could not afford candles of any sort used “lights” made from natural materials like rushes or cattails dipped in grease, or resinous splinters of pinewood known as “fat wood” or “heartwood”. These lights were held fast in special “pinching” holders. Extremely smoky, odiferous, and short-lived, the quality of the light cast by these means was the poorest.
Oil lamps were used as a cheap way to bring light into the home. Simple “betty” or “cruisie” lamps made of iron or tin equipped with wicks of twisted cloth could be filled with fish oil or other animal fat. Imagine sewing a shirt, or knitting a stocking, or repairing your rifle to the smoky light of burning rancid pork fat.
Any of these light sources were easily extinguished by wind or rain, or inattention. Wicks needed to be tended and trimmed to keep candles burning evenly and safely. Lamp wicks would often draw up oil quicker than it burned, causing the oil to spill over and catch fire. Wicks falling below the surface of the fat in a lamp or melted wax of a candle would sputter or gutter, and needed to be picked back out with the aid of a pickwick. It was no small thing to lose your light in the time period I write about, as the first practical friction matches would not come into being until nearer the mid-nineteenth century. By striking flint to steel and catching the spark in some dry tinder a skilled and lucky person might have a flame going in half an hour – if you were lucky!
I know it all sounds like quite a pain, but I can’t help but find the thought of living in a nighttime world lit only by the soft glow cast by moon, stars and flame to be somehow peaceful, beautiful, and yes… quite romantic.