Saturday, June 22, 2013


by Grace Elliot

Here in the UK we’re having such a gloomy summer, so dull and grey, that we need the lights on during the day. But, electricity is a modern luxury which set me wondering about dreary days in Victorian or Georgian times and what the options were for light.

Viewing a sculpture by candlelight.

Burning the Candle at Both Ends
Rushlights were made from the stem of the rush plants, dried and stripped of green fibre, then soaked in any available fat. Cheap and easy to make, they were a popular lighting option for poor people. The rush stem was supported in a holder at a 45 degree angle to provide maximum light and burn time. An average rush light burnt for 10 – 15 minutes. If you wanted a brighter light (but with half the burn time) you lit the rushlight at either end, hence the expression ‘burning the candle at both ends’.

The Game’s Not Worth the Candle
Beeswax candles were expensive and used mainly by the wealthy. Indeed burning a candle was tantamount to burning money, and via the extravagant use of candles the rich advertised their wealth. In larger households, candle stubs could be a saleable commodity for the enterprising servant who collected them.
In Georgian times, people adapted to poor light – often learning to perform tasks without light. In Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, one of the characters economises on candles in the winter by ‘knitting in the darkness by the fire.’
A chandelier such as this cost a small fortune to light
and was a visible sign of wealth.
In 1709 the government decided to cash in and tax candles. At the rate of four pence a pound, that candles were lit for guests despite the tax, was a great compliment to them. Such was the value of candles that when in 1731 Sir Robert Walpole entertained the Duke of Lorraine it was rumoured (with much amazement) that he burnt 180 candles, at a cost of over 15 GBP.
An Unpleasant Meaty Smell
If beeswax candles were outside the pocket of ordinary people, there was an alternative – the tallow candle. These were made from animal fat; the ideal blend was half sheep and half cow tallow – because hogs fat burnt with ‘an ill smell and a thick black smoke.’ Even so, the tallow candle smelt meaty, burnt with a sooty flame, and the wick needed trimming every few minutes.

Francois Argand - who invented the
lamp that bears his name.
A Lighting Revolution
The end of the 18th century saw an improvement in the design of oil lamps. Previous to this oil lamps burnt with a poor light and were prone to going out at regular intervals. A breakthrough came in 1783 when a Swiss chemist, Francois Argand, patented a new system with a circular cotton wick protected by a funnel and burnt viscous rape-seed oil.
An Argand table lamp
An Argand lamp gave out ten to twelve times the light of a single candle. This amazing increase in illumination was such that some contemporary observers attributed ‘women’s nervous disorders’ to the unnatural brightness. (In fact, green wallpaper containing arsenic was a more likely culprit.)
Argand lamps gave out enough light to sew by.
And finally, isn’t it strange how even though we have electricity, we favour the sense of intimacy that candles give? Did you know: last year more than 1 billion pounds of wax was used in the production of candles for sale in the US?
Grace Elliot leads a double life as a veterinarian by day and an author of historical romance by night. Grace is an avid reader and believes intelligent people need to read romance - as an antidote to the modern world. She works in a companion animal practice near London and is housekeeping staff to five demanding felines, two sons and a bearded dragon.
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New release- end of June!


  1. Thank you, Grace, for an 'illuminating' post! We do tend to forget how dark most homes must have been, especially in the winter time.

    1. Ha ha, Marie - I can see great minds think alike. In times gone by people must have had a different attitude to light - with it not being available 24/7 at the flick of a switch.
      G x

  2. I once found a reference to the Duke of Beaufort's trade in rape (oilseed kind) at Chepstow - around the time (1783) you mention. Interesting -- that would presumably be what it was being used for.

    Also - we have curious indentations - flame shaped - in the beam over our cottage fireplace. I have been told that they and the accompanying small holes were due to burning rushlights there. Evocative....

  3. A great post, Grace. I posted it on my Facebook page. I particularly like that you included rush lights. Their use over such a long time fascinates me.


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