THERE are very few collectors, I find, who make a specialty of old
lamps and candlesticks. In fact, I know of only two or three. This
subject would therefore appear to be of small importance were it not for the
fact that hundreds of collectors and lovers of Colonial and kindred
antiques include in their collections a few old lamps and candlesticks,
while I know of nothing that adds more, in an ornamental way, to a room
furnished in the Colonial style. Candlesticks appeal to a larger class,
probably, than any other form of antique. I have known people to buy
and gloat over a pair of plain old brass candlesticks who don't known a
Sheraton sideboard from a Staffordshire platter.
Because so few collectors have specialized in this direction,
apparently no one has considered it worth while to make an exhaustive study
of the subject. Very little historical data seem to have been collected,
and most of what has been written is dull and more or less irrelevant.
It is of small helpfulness to the average collector to read of the
evolution of the lamp from ancient times.
In brief, the subject under consideration is by nature diffuse. It
is impossible to write of candlesticks as of old beds, not to say
silverware or china. For the-collector, there is very little plan or system
to be followed, but there are interesting facts to be gathered and
charming specimens to be owned, and he will find that old lamps and
candlesticks, after all, fall into a class by themselves.
The average collector will doubtless confine his interests to such
lighting arrangements as were used in this country from the earliest
days up to seventyfive years ago. Within this scope are enough specimens
to be obtained to satisfy the collecting instincts of all but the most
The earliest and most natural light of the American colonists was
the pine-knot, sometimes called candlewood. This gave a fairly brilliant
and steady light, but smoke and dropping pitch rendered it far from
In early days a lamp was introduced among the colonies for burning
camphene, a form of spirits of turpentine, but it gained the reputation
of being dangerous. One early record (1630) has it: "Though New England
has no tallow to make candles of, yet by abundance of fish thereof it
can afford oil for lamps." Few oil lamps were used in the colonies as
early as that, however.
The earliest and simplest form of lamp that came into general use in
the colonies was the Betty lamp. This was a shallow receptacle of
pewter, iron, or brass, round, oval, or triangular in form, two or three
inches in diameter, and with a projecting nose an inch or two long. This
basin was filled with tallow or grease, and a piece of twisted rag or a
rush was placed so that it hung over the nose. This primitive wick,
when lighted, absorbed enough of the grease to give a fairly steady light.
Most of the Betty lamps had hooks and chains or some other attachment
for hanging them from the wall or ceiling. A few were supplied with a
hook for cleaning out the grease. The Phoebe lamp was very similar, the
name usually being applied to lamps furnished with shallow cups beneath
for catching the drippings.
During the latter part of the seventeenth century the use of whale
oil in lamps became fairly common in America, but candlesticks were
always considered more elegant. Candle light is certainly more beautiful
than the light of these early lamps, and no Yankee ingenuity could
prevent the evil smell of the burning oil.
Ordinary candles were made of mutton tallow and similar substances,
but the finer ones were made of the fragrant bayberry. This berry
furnishes a wax, pale green in color, and emitting a soft light and a faint,
pleasing odor. It is not greasy and does not soften in warm weather.
The housewives of the old days took great pride in their bayberry
candles, the use of which might well be revived. They are sometimes made for
Christmas-tree decoration, but might also be more generally used on the
Candles were made by molding or dipping. For the former process tin
or pewter molds were used. Four or six candles could be run in these
molds at once candles that were longer and more shapely than those
manufactured by the tedious process of dipping. By the latter method the wick
had to be dipped in the melted tallow again and again, cooling between
dips. Specimens of these old candle molds are still found among
collections of Colonial kitchen utensils.
By 1750 whale oil had become so common that candles were sometimes made
of it, though it was generally used in lamps.
In the earliest Colonial days even the simplest candlesticks were
rare, and the tallow candles were often placed on candle beams simply
crossed sticks of wood or pieces of metal with sockets in them. Simple
stands were also used, and a sort of wall sconce called a prong or candle
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries dozens of
designs were introduced, and candlesticks were made of almost every
conceivable material. In fact, so many different kinds were made that it is
practically impossible to classify them. It does not require superior
powers of divination, however, to determine when a candlestick is old and
beautiful, and that is, after all, our chief concern.
The simple, straight candlesticks of brass, copper, silver, and
Sheffield plate deservedly hold first place in popularity. Their chaste,
unadorned grace is strictly in keeping with the Colonial style. Cut and
molded glass candlesticks, too, possess a charm all their own.
Occasionally we find a candlestick of mahogany.
Pewter candlesticks are sometimes found in odd shapes. Some of them
had bell-shaped bases, with a ledge or shelf for grease just above the
bell. Silver candlesticks were comparatively rare in this country in
the eighteenth century, partly because most of our ancestors were not
wealthy enough to have them, and partly because many preferred the
polished brass. Brass candlesticks are still the most popular, and a valuable
and interesting collection might be made, of these alone.
Besides the ordinary candlesticks there were some that possessed
shades or chimneys to protect the flame from the wind. Occasionally wall
sconces are to be found, chiefly of brass. Most of these came from
London and Paris. Then there were candlesticks of all grades supplied with a
slide by which the candle might be raised as it became short. Tin
candlesticks of this type were common in New England kitchens until quite
recently. China candlesticks are more rare. The beautiful one shown in
our illustration is of Leeds ware. They were also made of Wedgwood, and
cheap crockery candlesticks were sometimes used.
Among the forms sought for by collectors is a Colonial pattern,
dating about 1750, with an oval base. Most of the candlesticks of this
period were in some form of baluster pattern. Nearly all are much more
valuable when found in pairs.
Another interesting subject,closely allied to this, but into which I
shall not go at present, is the subject of candle accessories. Early in
the eighteenth century snuffers were invented, and came into general
use. They were used to trim or snuff the candle wicks when the tallow
melted away and the flame became yellow and smoky. The usual type, like a
pair of scissors with a little box on top, was much used in the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and is quite familiar. Conical
extinguishers were also used, being sometimes attached to the
candlestick by a small chain. Little trays were frequently supplied for the
snuffers to rest upon.