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Lighting the House in the Regency by Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the author of a number of Regency romances and Austen-inspired novels. She was moved to write this article due to a power outage. There’s nothing like doing without electricity to give one a feel for what light–or the lack of it–was like in the Regency era.

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Today, I have dealt with another power outage in my area, and I have privately cursed how dark my home is without the power of electricity. I have had to go without lights, TV, the internet, phone service, etc., and this modern-day “deprivation” has set me to thinking about the days of the Regency era when the almighty CANDLE ruled the home.

Source: Gallery Byzantium
Source: Gallery Byzantium

Until the Victorian Era, candles, lanterns, and rush-lights served as the principal means of lighting the Georgian styled home, and like every other aspect of Regency life, the use of the these sources of light adhered to their own “hierarchy” of use.

At the top of the Candle Hierarchy was the beeswax candle. These candles were more expensive than the others and could be left unattended for longer periods than could tallow or rush lights. However, they did melt faster than tallow candles. Wax candles were used by the very rich to prove their superiority to others. Wax candles were used in chandeliers because they burned themselves out rather than having to be snuffed out by the servants.

Source: The Cultured Home
Source: The Cultured Home

Tallow candles, usually made from mutton fat, were the main source of light in middle class homes and the lower gentry. They left behind a most annoying odor and did not burn evenly. Generally, the flame had to be snuffed out to prevent the charred wick falling into the tallow. If this happened, a “gutter” formed and melted wax would flow over everything. The tallow candle offered poor lighting and did not last for long.

Rush-lights were used by the poor. Rush-lights were made by dipping the stripped pith of common rushes into hot animal fat, often bacon fat. Rushes are commonly 2 feet long. They were held in place by a stand with a clip, and they usually burned out in an hour or so. The poor sometimes chose to burn tallow candles, but they were not economical. Eleven rushes would cost a family a farthing.

It was commonplace to have only two candlesticks in each room. In some homes, wall sconces with mirrors behind them increased the lights. These sconces were typically mounted on the chimney-breast.

Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

Unlike the homes on the Continent, most homes in Georgian London were slow to accept oil burning lamps. Ami Argand of Geneva demonstrated his improved lamp in 1783 to the French Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately for Argand, the French Academy did not take well to the experiment. So, Argand brought his invention to London. Argand lamps using Colza oil were used in some wealthier London homes, but they were very expensive and were “plagued” by the cumbersome need to mount the oil reservoir above the level of the burner. This mounted reservoir blocked off the light from one side of the lamp. After 1798, a pump was available to force the oil upwards.

Candles were more economical and remained the main source of light until the mid-19th Century.

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© 2015 Regina Jeffers

This article was originally published at her blog in January of 2015.

Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.

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  1. Absolutely fascinating, I think. Having just finished a book placed in Regency-era Donegal in Ireland, where the main illumination at night came from the peat fire, usually in the middle of the floor in a stone circle, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how dreadfully dark it must have been at night–particularly on winter nights in Donegal, which is as far north and west as you can go in Ireland, and thus winter nights were long and cold.

    We take light whenever we’re awake so much for granted!

  2. We do take light for granted. I had a short power outage last night. Thankfully it was only a few minutes and everything went off. A few years ago I went to Africa and stayed in a basic guest house on a mountain. The only light we had were oil lamps, and one of them would smoke. Yet outside with no light the stars shone in a velvet sky and there were glowworms in the grass. It was magical.
    Really informative blog. And makes me appreciate what we have today.

    1. At my great grandmother’s house, we used oil lamps. I recall how smoky they were.
      I feel the same way about being up in the mountains as you describe as in Africa. Unfortunately, “progress” keeps stealing a bit more of nature’s magnificence.

  3. As the English preferred open fires to stoves, the fireplace would also help illuminate a room. Many years ago I used to cycle down a country lane to catch the train to work. On nights when there was a full moon and no clouds the light levels were quite high except everything was in monochrome. It certainly explains why the Lunar Society would arrange their meetings around the phases of the moon for travelling at night.

    1. I know even the least bit of light will break through the darkness.
      If it were cloudy during a full moon, the conditions would still be less than ideal.
      Thanks for your input, Stephen.

  4. Fascinating! I remember the oil lamps my grandmother had at her house. They gave out so little light I wondered at how she read by them. Thank you for sharing with us, Regina.

    1. Good day, Brenda.
      Is it not a wonder that everyone over age 40 did not wear glasses? I understand how the retina changes in how it handles light. I cannot imagine how a sort of “night blindness” was not prevalent.

  5. I have tried to read by candle-light during power-cuts, and found it difficult. I needed to group several candles to have enough light. It gave me a real appreciation for authors who wrote before electric light.

    The moon is an amazing source of light at the right time, but it’s incredible just how dark it is in the country (i.e. away from modern lights) when there’s a new moon, or when the moon is “out” during the day rather than the night. I now understand “can’t see your hand in front of your face”! The stars are amazing, though. But if you imagine trying to find your way anywhere before street lighting or headlights etc., you can see why it was so dangerous to be out late, and why people timed dinner-parties and balls to coincide with full moons (and hoped for cloudless skies).

    1. Hello, HJ.
      Have you seen the commercial where they speak of the human eye being able to see a flicker of a candle flame from the length of some four football fields? Every time I see it, I think “I might see the light in the complete darkness, but trying to read by candlelight is difficult, at best.

  6. Very interesting telling us about the candles and classes of people who use them. In the Orthodox Church of my faith, we always use beeswax candles. Candles used in our church as a symbol of the prayers going to Heaven to God. It is true that they burn faster than others. I keep other candles in my home for outages when a storm occurs but don’t burn beeswax candles in our home. I am sure of the cost in those days that lower class people who really have to preserve money by making their own and being in the dark much more to save money.

    1. Yes, my religion uses beeswax candles often. I often use a “rush” in my story line, but I wish I had experienced one so I would know whether what I write makes sense.
      Thanks for commenting, Mary Ann.

  7. A common practice among people of limited means who used candles was to score horizontal lines at regular intervals down the length of the candle. This was a method of budgeting their use of light. Each evening, they would use the candle until it had burned down to the next line, at which point they would snuff the flame and retire for the night, having used their allotment of the candle for that day. That way, they could ensure their candle would last until they could afford to buy another one. How times have changed!

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