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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article


( Originally Published 1940 )

The problem of illumination is directly related to all the metal crafts and, in a lesser degree, to glass and pottery. As a problem it curiously failed to draw the attention of inventive genius for an astonishing number of centuries. The lamp of our founding forefathers was virtually the same as that of classic times: the cup-shaped device which many of us associate with the vestal virgins of the classic temple. In this country it was called a "Betty lamp." It was simply a dish to hold the oil, and a lip-groove in which the wick was placed, and a hook to hang it by. The fuel generally employed was the oil squeezed from the livers of the small fish abounding in the Atlantic Ocean. It was hardly a satisfactory fuel for it gave little light, caked the wicks, and produced a vile smell. A similar lamp, with the addition of a double dish to catch dripping oil, was known as the "Phoebe lamp."

At first such lamps were made of iron, which soon gave way to tin. About 1860 the practice of whaling gave rise to the use of whale oil as a fuel, giving a better luminosity and a less offensive smell. With the advent of whale oil certain marked mechanical improvements occurred in the lamps themselves. The wick was put into a central spout and glass chimneys and lenses were added. This paved the way for quick perfection of the kerosene lamp which came in with the extensive distillation of the latter fluid in about 1680.

Other early modes of lighting were the "rush-light" and "candlewood." Rush-lights consisted of the pith of reeds, such as the common cat-o'-nine-tails, dipped in fat and supported in special iron holders. The unburnt "wick" was rolled up and untwisted as it was needed.

Candlewood consisted of the most resinous sections of pine cut into straight sticks. These were stuck into the cracks of the fireplace, or wherever was convenient, and burned with a flicker ing and smoky light, dripping molten resin onto the floor or mantel.

When eventually, about the beginning of the 18th century, the colonists had enough cattle to begin to provide themselves with tallow the candle came into use. Far from being a truly primitive thing the candle in America was at first used only for highly ceremonial occasions, only gradually coming into general use. Sconces, candelabra, and candlesticks were made of nearly all the various metals, and later of pottery and glass. The ordinary candle-mold is probably one of the most familiar of all obsolete American household implements.

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