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Summer 2003

A stroll through the history of lighting used in America

Inuit Stone Lamp (5¼" long - 1" high.)
Its size indicates a traveling lamp, used in temporary snow huts when stopping at night. The lamp burns with scarcely any smoke and a bright flame, the size regulated by the amount of wick. Such lamps were usually kept filled by the drip from a piece of blubber stuck on a sharp stick projecting from the wall about a foot above.

Among the gear found with the mummified remains of the 5,000 year old, Bronze Age “Ice Man” discovered in the Italian Tyrol in 1991, were a bark container containing charcoal and a belt pouch filled with flints, a retouching tool, and a type of fungus, Fomes fomentarius, called “true tinder.”(1)

Ever since its discovery, fire has been of the utmost importance to man. It was and still is used as a source of heat for bodily warmth, for cooking, to keep wild animals at bay, and to provide light after dark. One of this summer’s special exhibits, Banishing The Dark: An Exhibit of Lighting Devices Over the Ages, has been drawn from the Museum’s and private collections. These devices comprise four groups: lamps, lanterns, candleholders, and lighting accessories. They extend in time from a primitive Inuit fat lamp to an early electric light bulb.

All flame-type lighting devices produce gases, which when burned feed the flame. Products used for power sources in ancient times ranged from pine knots and splints to fats and oils from plants, fish, and animals; and not much changed for thousands of years.

Over the centuries, both primitive and poor people cut pitch pine heart-wood into long, thin splints or torches, which they carried by hand or in their mouths, as seen in Medieval wood cuts.(2) Photographs from the Smithsonian’s collection show examples of certain fatty birds and fish burned for light rather than food.(3) In 1928, Dr. Walter Hough, of the Smithsonian, wrote that in the Hebrides, people remembered having used the stormy petrel for torches. This implied burning fatty birds had been used over the millennia, and not just by primitive peoples; though one could argue that those living in the Hebrides one hundred years ago must have led a fairly primitive existence.

European and Colonial Americans used birch and pitch pine, called candlewood or fatwood, for such torches. In 1642 one Pilgrim wrote: “Out of these Pines is gotten the candle-wood that is so much spoken of, which may serve as a shift among the poorer folks; but I cannot commend it for singular good, because it droppeth a pitchy kind of substance where it stands.” Yet, in 1633, the Rev. Francis Higginson, of Salem, described candlewood splints as, “... such candles as the Indians commonly use, having no other, and they are nothing else but the wood of the pine tree cloven into little slices, something thin, which are so full of moysture of turpentine and pich that they burn as cleare as a torch.”(4)

Burning anything other than a wood torch required creating a holder. The cresset or fire basket was used for street lights. The beacon of Beacon Hill was a cresset holding blazing pine knots. Fishermen, too, used cressets in their boats to lure fish at night. Animal fats and other oils, on the other hand, required a leak-proof container. The simplest and earliest ones were of stone or shell. The earliest type of lighting device in the exhibit is a stone fat lamp from the Inuit culture. Later lamps of baked clay, a type used in Greece and Cyprus and called Classical lamps, were followed by hanging or setting float lamps of glass or metal, first illustrated in the seventh or eighth century.(5) This was followed by the iron crusie lamp with its open bowl.

Problems inherent in the early grease lamps, included having to push soft grease up around the wick, which itself had to be scraped and picked up, and the messiness and danger of spilled oil. Also such lamps distributed light poorly. These negatives led to improvement in fuel and wick design. The Betty lamp, which boasted not only a covered bowl, but a slanted wick support, was considered the best all around device for burning oil until modern times; and as recently as this past spring, a Fishermen’s Voice columnist recommended it for power outages and for use on a boat. A reproduction Betty lamp is on view in the Museum’s historic John Perkins House.

Lamps needed tinder to catch the sparks made by striking flint and steel together or by other means, tinder to catch the sparks, fuel to feed the fire, and a wick to burn the fuel. Tinder could be as simple as the Ice Man’s dried fungus, dried moss, grasses and leaves, or fabric, twisted paper, and wood shavings. A wick could be as equally simple as a piece of dried moss, fabric, or anything else that conducted fuel to flame. The Museum’s exhibit contains such fire-starting equipment as a tinderbox and candle, a flintlock lighter, and early manufactured wooden matches, as well as reproduction cork-and-candle float wicks and paper spills.

According to the late Joseph T. Butler, curator of Sleepy Hollow Restorations, in Tarrytown, NY, records such as Wills from 1650 to 1710 “indicate a considerable scarcity of lighting devices in [American Colonial] households.”(6) People had to make do.

The soft meadow rush, Juncu effusus, stripped to the pith, dried, and drawn through animal fat or drippings, was, in a way, a primitive candle. It provided an imperfect light, as noted by a poet in 1774:

A rushlight in a spacious room,
Burns just enough to form a gloom.

Photo of a whale oil lamp
One of a pair of whale oil lamps on loan for the summer season. The lamps still retain the amber-color oil of the sperm whale.

The candle developed from the rushlight by using strands of twisted cotton yarn, instead of a dried rush, as a wick and coating it with many layers of tallow or other fats, beeswax, or bayberry wax. This type wick collected soot at the top, resulting in smoky, dim light. Scissors-like candle snuffers trimmed the burned, sooty wick or “snuff,” which demanded constant attention. (A twisted cotton wick can be seen in a pair of early whale oil lamps in the exhibit.) In 1820, it was discovered that braiding the wick produced less smoke, and gradually braided wicks came into general use and were, themselves, improved upon.

An improvement in the 18th century on candles made from the waxy “head matter” or spermaceti of sperm whales, increased candlepower. Spermaceti candles shone far brighter than those of tallow, beeswax, or bayberry and became the standard of excellence. Fortunes were made from whaling and its by-products, particularly in such centers as Nantucket, New Bedford, and Sag Harbor. By 1792 Nantucket, alone, had ten candle factories.(7)

An early version of the whale oil lamp, such as the pair in the exhibit, was made with drop-in tin and cork burners, which hold the wick. The amber-color oil in the lamps is from the sperm whale, which cost less than the white, so called, “head matter.”(8) Early whale oil lamps were used like candles, without chimney or shade, as seen in a contemporary engraving.(9) Later burners screwed in and had a support for a glass chimney and shade.

Because whale oil and spermaceti candles were so expensive, other means were sought to find a less expensive way to light up the night.

By the end of the 18th-century —1783, to be exact — a Swiss, Ami Argand, invented a new kind of lamp, the eponymous Argand. It was the first improvement in wick design since the ancient clay lamp with wick channel. Argand rolled a flat wick into a cylinder and enclosed it between two tubes. According to Leroy Thwing, who wrote an authoritative book of lighting, Flickering Flames, “The inside tube extended downward from the burner and opened on the base of the tube supporting it,”(10) causing air to be drawn up through the first tube by heat into the inside of the flame.

From 1800 to 1850, more than 500 patents were granted for improvements in lighting devices.

After the Argand and its improved version, the Astral lamp, one with a circular tube, which eliminated the shadows cast by the Argand, the 19th century saw a blossoming of innovations in fuels, burners, and wick design.

Coal oil and camphene and other fluids offered less viscosity, but were dangerous. Pent-up gases caused lamps to explode, causing injury and, in some cases, death. Sir Humphrey Davy, in 1816, invented a system for using fine wire mesh screening to prevent communication of flame. A look at just a few improvements on his idea illustrates the reason for the sheer number of patents for lighting device improvement.

In 1836, Isaiah Jennings applied the mesh screen to burning fluid lamps, and in 1853, John Newell, of Boston, received a patent for silvering the mesh to prevent corrosion and introducing small vent holes in the burner caps to prevent bursting due to the buildup of pressure in the font. Because most explosions occurred when refilling a fluid lamp while it was lighted, Bostonian William Bell was issued a patent in 1854 for providing a separate filler chamber that did not require the removal of the burner. He retained the safety feature of the wire mesh at the bottom of the chamber. In 1855, another patent, granted to E. N. Horsford and James R. Nichols, of Massachusetts, kept Davy’s wire gauze, but added an inner safety wick tube, barbed to hold the wick in place.(11) A fragment on exhibit, the font of a pressed glass lamp found in the Perkins House, illustrates the mesh screening so important to lamp safety.

Photo pf a pressed glass lamp
The font of a pressed glass lamp found during restoration of the Museum’s historic John Perkins House with the mesh screening removed and shown to the side.

Lamps that burned lard oil with a flat wick were used in outlying districts. According to patent directions for a lamp patented in 1856, if there were not warm or liquid lard to start the lamp, one held a lighted match to the burner while holding the lamp upside down. When started, one set the lamp down and put some cold lard in the lid around the flannel wick, which had been stuffed into the burner with stiff wire.(12)

Burning whale oil in lamps led to the vertical wick tube. Such a tube had not been possible until finding a thin enough product to carry the fuel from the font to the top of the wick. Although whale oil was costly due to the difficulty and danger of whaling, the quality of light it delivered made it the oil of choice from the 1840s to the 1860s. 1854 was the high point of the whaling industry, with whaling vessels bringing home $10,766,521 worth of whale oil and bone, oil sold for $1.44 per gallon.(13)

Although the disagreeable-smelling whale oil produced a higher degree of candlepower than anything else, many New Englanders settled for the cheaper and equally smelly oil extracted from the menhaden, better known locally as pogies.

Other fuels used included coal oil; turpentine and its highly explosive, distilled product, camphene; and other burning fluids, which were mixtures of alcohol and turpentine patented first in 1830 and widely used from 1845 to 1850. These fuels, which required wick tubes angled to form a V-shape, were superceded by inexpensive kerosene for lamps and paraffin for candles, both distilled from coal oil starting in the 1850s. Although whaling didn’t end technically until 1924, it started declining in the 1860s, to be replaced by petroleum products or lighting fuels. A lighting chart illustrates the rise and fall of lighting fuels from 1850 to 1950.(14)

Although petroleum had been discovered in 1814 and was dug from wells, it was a long time before the process of distillation made this thick oil usable in lamps. It also required the, by now familiar wide, flat wick, which required a burner designed for it, which, in turn, led to many patents for improvements on wicks and on burners.

Kerosene lighting was followed, in the 1850s, by natural gas, and, in the 1880s, by electricity. Castine, being a rural community, wasn’t piped for gas lighting until 1903 and wasn’t wired for electricity until 1917.

The aim, throughout the centuries, was to improve the quality of the light and to make it safer and less expensive.

Author, Sandra Dinsmore, gives special thanks to the Wilson Museum staff, Blue Hill Public Librarian Fern McTighe, Winterthur Museum Librarian Bert Denker, and restorer John Gardner.

Please join us to hear more from Sandra Dinsmore on her research in lighting. Evening lecture will be in the Main Hall of the Wilson Museum, July 30, 2003 - 7 p.m.


<< Return to reading >>

  1. Spindler, Konrad. The Man in the Ice, p. 110
  2. Thwing, Leroy. Flickering Flames, pl.22
  3. Hough, Walter. Heating & Lighting Utensils, U. S. National Museum Bulletin 141, pl.4
  4. Hebard, Helen Brigham. Early Lighting in New England, p. 12
  5. Thwing, Frontispiece
  6. Butler, Joseph T. Candleholders in America, p. 16
  7. Mawer, Granville Allen. Ahabs Trade, pp. 14-19
  8. Ibid. p. 44
  9. Davidson, Marshall B. The American Heritage History of American Antiques from the Revolution to the Civil War, p.302
  10. Thwing, p. 72
  11. Hebard. Early Lighting, p. 81, #9-13
  12. Thwing, p. 67
  13. Mawer, p. 263
  14. Thuro, Katherine M. V. Oil Lamps, The Kerosene Era in North America, Paducah, KY, Collector: 1976, 1998, p. 14

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Open: May 27 — September 30
Weekdays 10 am — 5 pm, Saturday & Sunday 2 — 5 pm
John Perkins House BulletBlacksmith Shop
July — August, Wednesday & Sunday, 2 — 5 pm
Group visits can be arranged by appointment.
(207) 326-9247   info@wilsonmuseum.org

Admission is free, except for the John Perkins House, where there are guided tours.

A non-profit organization, tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) IRS Code
120 Perkins Street, PO Box 196, Castine Maine 04421
(207) 326-9247    info@wilsonmuseum.org