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Brass Candlesticks from Birmingham

Although some of our more opulent ancestors had candlesticks of silver or Sheffield plate, Americans of moderate means felt well served if they had one or more pairs of brass. Kept gleaming by repeated polishings and brought out on special occasions, they were luxuries to be treasured. For everyday use, simpler ones of pewter or wrought iron were adequate.

I well remember a story told me in Vermont, dating back to the 1830's, about a prosperous farmer who was known for his closeness with money and for "liking to put his best foot forward." A young lawyer of some social standing rode up to his house one evening on civic business. As he waited to be admitted after sounding the front door knocker, there were hurried footsteps within and then came a stage whisper clearly audible to the visitor on the other side of the door.

"Mirandy? Mirandy! Bring in the brass candlesticks. Mr. Samuel Richmond's come to call."

Nearly all brass candlesticks in American homes during the candlelight and whale-oil-lamp era were imported from England. In the colonial period, the English Board of Trade had discouraged brass working here, and afterward the brass founders of Birmingham provided such well-designed candlesticks at such reasonable prices that there was little incentive for anyone to produce them in the United States. Hence, brass candlesticks found in America before 1840 were Birmingham-made.

Most of them were of the column type. The balusterlike shape of the shaft resembled the turnings of some Windsor chairs, indicating that the models could well have been made by wood turners. The shaping served a practical purpose too. Since one's fingers fitted well around the narrower rings that separated the bulbous part of the shaft, it could be held firmly when a lighted candle was carried from one place to another. The wide disk of the socket was another practical feature, as it caught the wax that trickled down as the candle burned.

An unseen but ingenious item was the candle ejector. It was a slender iron rod that moved up and down inside the hollow shaft. There was a disk slightly smaller than the candle socket attached to the upper end and another about the size of a dime affixed to the lower end. Slight pressure on this would move the rod up and push the candle stub out. The lower end of the ejector can be seen by looking at the inside base of the stick. Candlesticks complete with ejectors in working order are the most desirable.

Like the cast-brass andirons of the same years, the larger candlesticks were cast in vertical halves and put together by braising. They can be identified by two faint hairlines of lighter color which extend from top to bottom. Breathing on a stick will often make these lines visible. Most Birmingham candlesticks found today date from between 1800 and 1840 when they were at the height of their popularity in America.

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