18th and 19th Century Lighting

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In the 18th century, colonists were resourceful in the ways they lit the dark nights – wood burning on the hearth provided general lighting for the common space in early homes.  Rush lights, grease lamps or candles were used for task lighting.  Grease and candles were made from plant or animal fats.

Rush lights

Rush lights were the simplest form of candle.  The pith, or core, of rushes or reeds were dried, then saturated with waste kitchen fat and held in rush light holders.  These holders clamped the reeds in position while they burned.  Rush lights gave off a lot of smoke and only burned for 15 – 20 minutes.  They provided very little light.  You can see how these work when you visit our exhibit!


People have been wrapping flammable solids around a fiber wick to form candles since 3000 BC.  The candle continued to be the most common source of artificial light until the 19th century.  The quality of the light given off by candles varied with the type of material used.  Candle stands were made of wood, iron, tin or glass.

Iron & tin lamps

Betty or Phoebe lamps were made of various metals and filled with fish oil or other animal fats.  A wick was coiled into the fat and lit, providing a little light for reading or sewing.  These lamps were usually suspended from a chain, and had attached to them a pick for cleaning the burned end of the wick.  Their small size made them very portable.  When you visit, ask our volunteers to light one for you – they are surprisingly bright!


Lanterns were used to transport artificial lighting.  They carried candles or small oil lamps.  Openings were covered with finely scraped animal horn or later glass.


Lamps made of brass, pewter, tin and glass were built to burn a variety of liquid fuels, including kerosene, camphene (distilled turpentine), whale oil, or coal oil.  Burners for lamps were greatly improved with woven wicks and an increased air supply.  These changes resulted in a brighter, long lasting light and a cleaner-burning lamp.


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