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Old Lights And Lamps

( Originally Published 1919 )



Then I rose, lighted a Candle at Father's fire, that had been raked up from Saturday night, kindled a Fire in the chamber. —The Diary of Samuel Sewall.

I avow a lucky lady who has twenty-seven pairs of old candlesticks; to say nothing of the odd ones she possesses. Of course it is L ; I sometimes think that she has just to wish for a thing hard to have it fall into her waiting hands, though, of course, I do know that patient, intelligent persistence has a deal to do with it, too. And she deserves the candle-sticks, for, every night of her little girlhood in Vermont, she went to bed by the light of a tallow dip.

But before I, like a fortunate showman, display her treasures, let me tell you something about the old lights and lamps that our forefathers worked and courted and studied by. I quoted that simple, revealing sentence from Judge Sewall's diary be-cause, in the twentieth century, when the ease of electricity makes even striking a match a wearisome process, it is so hard for us to visualize, to imagine in the least degree what the seventeenth century was enduring in real efforts and privation.

Picture to yourself the first pioneer light, a pine torch, — "candle wood" it was called, — flaring and dancing and answering the flames on the hearth, for in the earliest days of the Colonies there were no lamps or candles. Tallow was lacking; cattle and sheep grazing on the commons belong to a somewhat later time, and in the earliest letters and inventories of Governor Winthrop, about 1632, we find constant mention of "ordinary suet and tallow" and "tallow and wick" as being among the necessities to be imported. When the candles themselves were sent over, they cost fourpence apiece: no small item of expense in a Colonial menage, nor would it be to-day, for this same fourpence must be multiplied by three to give its real purchasing power now, and a candle for a quarter would be a decided luxury. Even as late as 1730 they were used sparingly. In his quaint, gossiping diary Samuel Sewall, telling of his unsuccessful wooing of Madame Winthrop, writes, — and, by the way, if you want an illuminating, fluent commentary on the life of the times you should surely read him, — "Madame Winthrop not being at Lecture, I went thither first; found her very serene with her dater Noyes, Mrs. Dering and the widow Shipreev sitting at a little Table, she in her armed Chair. She drank to me and I to Mrs. Noyes. After awhile I pray'd the favor to speak to her. She took one of the Candles, and went into the best Room, closed the shutters, sat. down upon the Couch." Now, since both were well along in years, her one candle must be attributed to frugality, not Where did all the candlesticks come from, I won-der? There are so many now. In 1636 they were important enough to be mentioned in several wills, often just a single candlestick being noted. Sixty years later, part of a legacy is recorded as being paid in 40 "brass candlesticks of a middle cize." In 1719 they were still being ordered from London; Judith Sewall's wedding outfit included "Two pair of large Brass sliding Candlesticks, about four shillings a pair, two pair of large Brass Candlesticks, not sliding, of the newest fashion, about five or six shillings a pair and four Brass Snuffers with Stands."

So much for candlesticks. A method of lighting almost equally used, following the pine torch, was the " Betty Lamp," shaped rather like the old Roman lamps, made of brass or iron, hanging from a chain ending in a large ring so that it might be suspended where it would give the reader his best light, some-times on the round in the back of a chair, sometimes from a hook on the mantel-shelf. The body was filled with tallow or oil and a little rag or wick inserted at the lip. I have burned a Betty Lamp! I did not see what could possibly be the use of one in the house if you did n't know how it worked. So I took the larger one, the brass one there in the picture, filled it a third full of tallow and inserted a rudely twisted wick. It burned for an hour with a flame steadier and larger than a candle flame, and by a simple process of arithmetic I arrived at the conclusion that the lamp, filled, would burn nearly three hours. This one came from Massachusetts, the smaller iron one from Virginia, and both are furnished with the little metal pin for picking out the tallow or oil when it became clogged. The light the Betty Lamp gave was quite sufficient to read by; it was only when it went out that I regretted my experiment, for it left a confused, muttony sort of smell. I immediately understood why the colonists, when they found the abundant bayberry bushes growing along the seacoast, hastened to make their wax into candles, for, "if accident puts a candle out, it yields a pleasant fragrancy to all that are in the room; insomuch that, nice people often put them out on purpose to have the incense of the expiring snuff."

Some day I shall make man-,, of these spicy things, and burn them in your honor when you come to see me. For I have moulded and dipped candles my-self! My spirit of research would not let me rest until I had tried, and I had always wanted to use these old candle-moulds discovered in a village attic. My market-man, ,who is of an obligingness, — often he looks up antiques for me when he goes hunting or fishing in the backwoods, for such is the neighborliness of a little country town, — got me all the tallow I wanted, and I embarked on what I am sure was one of the most endless of Colonial tasks. Moulding is not so difficult; perhaps that is why experts insist that a "dipped" candle is a much superior product. The difficulty of moulding is merely a question of getting the wicks properly "threaded" through. I used a large darning-needle, and as I worked, I couldn't help hoping that the ancestress whose spirit was urging me on had something better to work with than the poor, sleazy stuff that is sold for wicking nowadays. I read once that Colonial children used to gather milkweed silk and spin it into wicking. That seems like capturing a dream, does n't it? Well, my candle-wicking was quite as fragile; it acted as if possessed : gossamer, cobweb, moon-shine! It broke if you looked at it! If I had lived in those days, I know I should have been haled before the Spiritual Court; Cotton Mather would have admonished me, and that pungently, for my expressed state of mind! After the wick has been run through the mould and secured at the top by being twisted around a. nail to hold it in place, it is a comparatively simple matter to pour in the melted tallow, let it harden, and later remove it, by much the same process you would use in taking ice-cream out of a mould.

I must confess to a certain feeling of primitive pride when my first candle slipped out: I lighted it, and it, burned! Dipping is infinitely more tedious. You must have a kettle full of bubbling, boiling water, on top of which the melted tallow lies in a thick, yellowish sheet. The wicking must be looped over the candle-rods, and twisted into a stout wick. I tallowed mine to make them completely straight.

Next, if you are a wise woman, you will spread papers all over your kitchen floor; for you must dip and dip and dip the wicks endlessly into this melted fat — cooled a little, of course — in between letting them dry hard and firm, for a candle dipped too quickly will melt and run. They say, you know, that a good worker could dip her two hundred candles a day. At my rate of accomplishment I know I would not have been considered worth my board and keep in Puritan times. I have a vague memory of 0--- coming in and asking, "Are you going to fight it out along those lines if it takes all summer?" Anyhow, no longer do I feel helpless; electricity may go, the exigencies of war take our kerosene, but my candles, like the knitting-needles in "Vassalissa the Fair," will gleam and "give me light enough."

The whale-oil lamps represent a little later stage of lighting than the Betty Lamps, just why, it is hard to say, for fish-oil was available in the Colonies before tallow. However, lamps such as these became common in the eighteenth century, and were usually made of pewter, although I have seen one pair made of copper and heard of another made of brass. The two larger ones have double wicks, the middle just a single one, and all three represent a type of whale-oil lamp much in use in New England in Colonial times, and still to be picked up cheaply. The little one, for instance, I bid in at an auction for five cents, and the others were a dollar and a dollar and a half apiece. Mine are the plainer type, but whale-oil lamps can be very lovely. L and I found just such a treasure when we were out on quite another antique errand, the quest of a carved bed, to be exact. It was one of those beautiful days of early autumn, with a blue, hot sky, and clouds of yellow butterflies dancing round our wagon-wheels as we drove along an enchanting wood-road winding tip and tip, with a little brown brook to keep us company. We found the bed, and then we found this lamp: a fine, lustrous pewter, more beautiful in its lights and shades than silver, and as graceful and dignified and simple in shape as one some Pompeian girl might have used. And money couldn't buy it! They had " had it a long time in the family." Oh, well, it is good for your soul to have some-thing to want! Do you know I am wondering what Judge Sewall meant by those candlesticks "not sliding, of the newest fashion," because that smaller pair of French candlesticks (on page 90) are not sliding and are very old: this, the round circle of brass, to catch the wax-drip, shows. They were picked up at the Paris rag-fair, among the. wreckage of some artist's studio, for a franc each. That, too, was the price of the central candlestick, bought at the same time—a very fair example of Empire, though not so good as the larger pair, for the chasing on these is beautiful. Somehow they had drifted to New Haven, and L knew that she had got a bargain when she bought them at a little second-hand shop for six dollars.

I am wondering, too, how many of you have ever seen a pair of little traveling candlesticks like those on page 80? Practically, they are just a pair of sockets set in deep brass saucers, and they are very rare, this particular pair being the only ones we have ever found for sale in our North Country range. The sockets unscrew and fit inside the saucers, which, in their turn, screw together into one compact whole. It is said that they were first made in Salem, for the captains and supercargoes who, if they were very prosperous, had them fashioned of silver.

I like these candlesticks; they are very quaint, and they are a tribute to the wisdom of general conversation. In this case it was not only the traveling candlesticks, but another pair and a mirror and a stunning astral lamp-globe that we found in the little farmhouse. The other candlesticks have a less stirring history, but, since they came from our favorite dealer, — who picks up his treasures around the countryside much as we do, — their hidden stories must, I am sure, be interesting.

At the first glance these six pairs of candlesticks seem to be very much alike. I wish you would take a reading-glass and examine them care-fully. If you do you will see the decided difference; for no two pairs are must the same. The very front ones are epoch-making; they were the "opening wedge," and L really dates her collecting from the day that she bought them. Another pair rep-resents our "swapping" system; the real New England dealer still loves to "trade" and dicker, and the price of these was a mahogany mirror-frame. But the large ones at, the back are the most interesting of all — very massive, yet with a steady excellence of line. Although we bought them in an outlying country district, they originally stood on the parlor mantelpiece of an old hotel in a neighboring town, and another pair, their exact mates, still exist somewhere hereabouts, and, one fine day, we are going to find them. And please examine with your careful reading-glass the other smaller half-dozen pairs, for they are just as characteristic, just as unique, just as different as their taller brothers, and quite as much they represent our collecting range in New Hampshire and Vermont. Old candlesticks like these polish into a beautiful lustrous pallor, and L —'s almost wink at you, they shine so.

The saucer candlesticks came from an "old woman who lives under a hill," a beautiful hill, and that I mean literally, for, as we drove out of her dooryard, the pointed horizon-line, shouldering its way into the sky, faced us with loveliness. The by-products of " antique-ing " are wonderful, too, you know. These candlesticks are very good of their kind, with their small curved rings and little "palmettes," but are not to be compared for value with the three tall ones grouped in front of them. These are most unusual and very old, with the slide at the side, not at the bottom, as so many of the later types have; and three of a kind of candlesticks in the game .of "Collector's Luck" is very good fortune indeed. And their worth is enhanced by the fact that the snuffers and tray complete the set.

The Sheffield candlesticks, ten inches tall and of the shell-and-scroll pattern, are in really splendid condition, with not a shading of the copper showing through: an unusual thing for Sheffield, but then, they are cherished heirlooms, and, must think, on the other side of the family is a second set of a different pattern and quite as perfect, which L is waiting to have swept to her on her lucky tide of chance.

Those massive candlesticks all grouped together are American only in the sense that their emigrant owners brought them on their pilgrimage to this land of gold where, that they might stay, alas, they had to sell their brass and copper. The florid ones at the back are Polish; the rest, for the most part, came from a little shop in the North End of Boston kept by a Russian Jew, not long since a "greener" himself. It is just such collecting adventures that make you know how real a book like "David Levinsky" is. I think this earnest little Yiddish man always hoped to convert me; certainly his hospitality was as boundless as his Talmud lore, and he lavished both upon me. Friendliness lies anywhere you choose to look for it, you see. Soon he invited me to "Pass-over" supper at his house; next, to his pretty niece Rosie's most orthodox wedding, the great occasion of his life. Maybe that is why I have such faith in the genuineness of his wares; but another and perhaps better reason is because candlesticks are used in such quantities as a necessary part of Jewish religious ritual, that there is more chance of finding really old ones than if they were merely means of lighting.

Do you suppose the reason L has so many lovely lamps is because, must as with the candles, she lived by their yellow glow in her girlhood? These astral lamps were very grand in their day of the early nineteenth century. Don't you remember Whit-tier's lines when Maud supper was thinking "it might have been"?

The weary wheel to a spinet turned. The tallow candle an astral burned.

Meant to indicate great splendor, you see.

This one is beautiful and dignified, with its fluted bronze standard, at the base set into curled-over acanthus leaves, at the top ending in fleurs-de-lis. The globe is unusually fine, ground glass spaced with transparent stripes, and the tipper edge is cut in a clear diamond shape. It is quite thirty-one' inches tall, and instead of burning oil has been fitted for electricity and stands on L —'s carved Empire table, a usable thing of beauty and a practical joy forever.

The next lamp, ten inches shorter, is lovely, too, its base being marble and gilt with a fluted support, the same motif being carried tip under the pendants, which are beautifully cut. You will see quite a good deal of their delicate design if you look through my recommended reading-glass; and you can under-stand why small villages have a fascination for us when I tell you that this one came from a tiny place about ten miles north of us.

But I think I prefer the third lamp, even if the lustres are plain. The globe is so beautifully cut, the grooved standard almost classic in its simplicity, and the oil-well is glass, not metal. L found it in the little village just across the river, the one thing in a whole house that it wouldn't have been "a re-mission of sins" merely to have owned.

Little glass lamps are delightful for bedrooms, and these three are particularly pretty. The pair are all glass, the bases being pressed, and — let me tell you this for your comforting — the shades of these two are new. Ordinarily, most reproductions do not get the grace and "feeling" of these early-nineteenth-century globes, but the right type may be found by careful search and comparison. The body of the centre lamp is as beautifully cut as the shade, and so delicate that pendants would be superfluous.

Not that I don't like lustres: I think they are charming. I do not know when I have seen anything prettier than those fringing the little bobeches of the glass candlesticks. If I were speaking in French I would call them mignonnes. From tiny glass beads, cut something the way an amber necklace is, hang long, straight icicles, and these end in cunning bells, with small glass tongues twinkling and tinkling in-side, in shape a little as if a snowdrop had suddenly been crystallized. The candlesticks themselves are good examples of pressed glass, as are the other pair, too, the bases of the first being hexagonal, those of the second, round.

The girandoles, heirlooms also, are the end-pieces of a set, the centrepiece having gone to some other member of the family, and, of course, the completed trio would be more valuable. But I am showing you these because they in themselves are so good a design. I like the straight, perpendicular effect of the Indian figure, — do you suppose it is Tecumseh? For most girandoles are too ornate and over-foliaged. The Indian chief is a fitting bearer of light.

As I have written all this I have felt very much a laudatory temporis acti, an honest praiser of old days. I know I am fortunate to have electricity in my eighteenth-century cottage; but will any other light ever be as lovely as candlelight with its translucent glow beneath the flame? Will anything else ever seem as welcoming as lamplight? This winter, as I have driven through the countryside at dusk, and watched the little farmhouses, their small-paned windows warm with a mellow glow,—the "yellow day," as Balzac calls it, — I have. realized that in catching step with civilization we have left something of beauty on the road behind us.



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