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Old Time Lights

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



SINCE the introduction of gas and electric light, the old-time lamp has ceased to be a necessity, though in many instances it still does service as the receptacle for the gas jet or electric bulb. Likewise, candlesticks and candelabra are still in use, not, of course, as necessities, as they were a century ago, but yet doing efficient service in the homes of people who realize that the soft glow of the candle affords an artistic touch that nothing else can give. Undeniably, there is a peculiar fascination about candlelight that few can resist, and in whatever room it is used, that room is benefited through its attractiveness.

It is only when harking back that one realizes the strides that have been made in house lighting. In the early days, when the country was new, the only light was firelight, candlewood, or pine torches. To be sure, there was always the punched lantern, hung on the wall ready for use shutters, and against the brown walls, much to the delight of the little ones, who, seated on rude benches close at hand, threw hickory shavings into the fire to make it flame faster, or poked the great backlog with the long iron peel to make the sparks fly upward.

Candlewood fagots were in use throughout New England until the early part of the eighteenth century, and it was customary each fall to cut at a moment's notice, but this was for outside rather than inside lighting.

The earliest artificial light used by the colonist was candlewood, or pine torches. These torches were cut from trees in near-by forests, and were in reality short sections of dry, pitch-pine log from the heart of the wood, cut into thin strips, eight inches in length. The resinous quality of the wood caused these little splinters to burn like torches, hence their name. The drippings from them were caught on flat stones, which were laid just inside the fireplace; and to make a brighter light several torches were burned at one time, their steady flame, combined with the flickering blaze of the roaring logs, casting into the room just enough light by which to accomplish the simple tasks which had to be performed after nightfall.'

Even this rude means of lighting was not avail-able in some homes, for it is not uncommon to read in old chronicles of lessons being learned by the light of the fire only. While such a state of affairs would be looked upon as a calamity to-day, it was not without compensation, for the merry flames of the huge logs, as they flickered and danced on the hearth, cast a cheerful light on the closed shutters, and against the brown walls, much to the delight of the little ones, who, seated on rude benches close at hand, threw hickory shavings into the fire to make it flame faster, or poked the great backlog with the long iron peel to make the sparks fly upward.

Candlewood fagots were in use throughout New England until the early part of the eighteenth century, and it was customary each fall to cut enough wood to supply the family demand for a year. In some Northern states, these fagots were commonly used until 1820, while in the South they are used in a few sections even today, being often carried in the hand like a lantern.

When candles were first used here, they were imported from England, but their cost was so high that they were prohibitive save for festive occasions. The scarcity of domestic animals in the new land barred their being killed save for meat, and thus was lost an opportunity for candle making that was seriously felt. Some people, in-eluding Governors Winthrop and Higginson, in 1620 sent to England for supplies of tallow or suet to make their own candles, but the majority had to be content with candlewood. These first candles were fashioned without wicks, being provided instead with pith taken from the common rush and generally known as rush light, a lighting which possessed disadvantages, inasmuch as it burned but dimly and lasted but a short time. Even in 1634 we find that candles could not be bought for less than fourpence apiece, a price above the limited purses of the majority. Fortunately, the rivers were abundantly stocked with fish, and these were caught and killed, and their livers tried out for oil. This oil, which was crude, was principally used in lanterns, the wicks being made of loosely spun hemp and tow, often dipped in saltpeter.

The earliest lamp was a saucer filled with oil, and having in the center a twisted rag. This rude form of wick was used for over a century. Then came the Betty lamp, a shallow receptacle, in form either circular, oval, or triangular, and made of pewter, iron, or brass. Filled with oil, it had for a wick the twisted rag, which was stuck into the oil and left protruding at one side. This type came into use before the invention of matches, and was lighted by flint and steel, or by a live coal.

A most unique specimen of the early lamp is seen in a Salem home. It stands about six inches high, with a circumference of about twelve inches, and is an inch thick. It is made of iron, showing a liplike pitcher, while at the back is a curved handle. It is arranged to be filled with oil, and the wick is the twisted rag, which rests on the nose. Tradition relates that this lamp was used at the time of the witchcraft delusion, to light the unfortunate prisoners to jail.

When whale-fishing became the pursuit of the colonists, an addition to the lighting requisites was discovered in the form of sperm secured from the head of the whale. This proved very valuable in the manufacture of candles, which gave a much brighter light than the older type. So popular did this oil become that in 1762 a factory was established at Germantown, at that time a part of Quincy, to manufacture sperm oil from its crude state; and candles made from this oil were later sold in Salem by one John Appleton.

At this period, candle making was a home industry, being included in the fall work of every good housewife. At candle season, two large kettles, half filled with water, were hung on the long iron crane over the roaring fire in the kitchen, and in this the tallow was melted, having to be scalded twice before it was ready for use. Across large poles placed on the back of two chairs, smaller ones, known as candle rods, were laid, and to each one of these was attached a wick. Each wick in turn was dipped into the boiling tallow and then set away to cool. This way of making candles was slow and tedious, and it required skill to cool them without cracking, though an experienced candle-maker could easily fashion two hundred a day.

Bayberry candles, so much in favor today, were also made in early times. The berries were gathered in the fall, and thrown into boiling water, the scum carefully removed as it formed. At first a dirty green color was secured, but as the wax refined, the coloring changed to a delicate, soft green. Candles of this type were not so plentiful as those of tallow, for the berries emitted but little fat, and they were therefore carefully treasured by their makers. Today these candles are the most popular of all makes, emitting a pungent odor as they burn, but their cost some-times makes them prohibitive. Instead of the housewife always attending to this tedious task, it was sometimes performed by a person who went from house to house, making the winter's supply of bayberry candles. It was customary for every housekeeper in those days to have quantities of these in her storeroom, often as many as a thousand..

With the increase in sheep, many were killed, and the tallow obtained used for candle making. Such candles were provided with wicks made from loosely spun hemp, four or five inch lengths being suspended from each candle rod. The number of wicks used depended largely on the size of the kettle of boiling water and tallow. First the wicks were very carefully straightened, and then dipped into the tallow, and when cold this process was repeated until the candle had attained the right shape. Great care had to be exercised in this respect, and also that the tallow was kept hot, the wicks straight, and that the wicks were not dipped too deep in the boiling tallow. In drying, care was taken lest they dry too quickly or too slowly, and also that a board was placed underneath to catch the drippings. These drippings, when cool, were scratched from the board and used over.

The introduction of candle molds lessened the task of candle making to a great extent, and, in addition, secured a better-shaped candle, and one that burned longer than the old dip type. With their advent came into vogue professional candle-makers, men who traveled all over the country, taking with them large molds. In two days' time, so rapidly did they work, they could make the entire stock for a family's winter supply. These candles, when complete, were very carefully packed away in wooden boxes to insure safety from mice. They were a jolly set of men, these candlemakers, who pursued the work for love of the roving life it afforded, as well as for the money it netted. They came equipped with the latest gossip, and their presence was a boon to the tired house mother, whose duties did not allow of much social intercourse.

Ordinarily, candles were very sparingly used, but on festive occasions they were often burned in great quantities. At Hamilton Hall, in Salem, built at a cost of twenty-two thousand dollars, this mode of lighting was a feature, and in the early part of the nineteenth century, when the hall was the scene of the old assemblies, it was lighted by innumerable candles and whale-oil lamps, so many being required to properly illumine it that it took John Remond, Salem's noted caterer of that period, several days to prepare them for use. In those days, informal parties were much in vogue, commencing promptly at six and closing promptly at twelve, even if in the midst of a dance. The dances then enjoyed were of the contra type, waltzes and polkas being at that day unknown. The gentlemen at these gay assemblies came dressed in Roger de Coverley coats, small-clothes, and silken stockings, while the ladies were arrayed in picturesque velvets and satins, the popular fabrics of the period.

Candlesticks seem always to have been considered a part of the house furnishings in America, for we find accounts of them in the earliest records of the colonies. Many of these were brought from England, and in colonial dwellings still standing we find excellent specimens still preserved. The first candlesticks extensively used here were rudely fashioned of iron and tin, being among the first articles of purely domestic manufacture found in New England.. Later, with the building of more pretentious homes, candlesticks made of brass, pewter, and silver came into vogue, the brass ones being the most commonly used, as well as candelabra, and in the homes of the wealthier class were found brass wall sconces that were imported from London and France.

A particularly fine pair of these sconces is found in the Osgood house on Chestnut Street, Salem. Here the brass filigree work is in the form of a lyre encircled with a laurel wreath, and surmounted by the head of Apollo. The tree branches curve gracefully outward from the wreath and below the lyre.

In the early part of the eighteenth century, snuffers and snuffer boats, as the trays in which the candlesticks rested were known, came into use. These were sometimes of plain design, and sometimes fanciful, made either of brass or silver. Pewter was also used for this purpose, and later it became a favorite metal for the manufacture of hall lamps and candlesticks.

Lanterns next came into style and were a prominent feature of the hallway furnishing. Many of these were gilded and many were painted, and their greatest period of popularity was during the first part of the eighteenth century. About 1750 the first glass lamps came into favor. These were not like those of a later period, being very simple in form, and not particularly graceful.

In 1782 a Frenchman, named Argand, introduced the lamp which still bears his name. This marked the beginning of the lamp era, and while at first these lamps were so high in price that they could only be afforded by the wealthier classes, later they were produced at a more reasonable figure, when they came into general use.

The last half of the eighteenth century marked the adoption of magnificent chandeliers, many of which are still preserved. One such is found in the Warner house at Portsmouth, in the parlor at the right of the wide old hall, a room wherein have assembled many notable gatherings, for the Hon. Jonathan Warner was a generous host. This specimen is among the finest in the country, and is in keeping with the other fine old-time fittings.

About the beginning of the nineteenth century, candelabra and lamps with glass prisms were much used, some of them very simple in design, being little more than a plain stick with a few prisms attached, while others were very elaborate. Many of these candlesticks and candelabra are still preserved, together with the other old-time lights. In a Jamaica Plain home are some very valuable specimens of lighting fixtures that once stood on the mantel in the Sprague House on Essex Street, Salem, having been brought to this country by the first owner at the time the dwelling was being furnished for his bride.

With Fashion's decree that lamps and candelabra should be hung with cut-glass prisms, they attained great popularity, and sets of three came to be regular ornaments of the carved mantelpieces. These sets consisted of a three-pronged candelabrum for the middle, and a single stick on either side. The stand was of marble, while the standards were of gilt. At the base of each candle a brass ornament, like an inverted crown, supported the sparkling prisms, which jingled and caught rainbow reflections at every slight quiver. In the lamps, frequently the side portions were of bronze, the lamp for holding the oil being surrounded by prisms which depended from the central standard. The flaring chimneys of ground glass softened and shaded the light, while they also kept it from flickering in case of sudden draughts.

Up to the year 1837, flint and steel were the only mode of ignition, and their long association with old-time lights makes them an intimate part of them.. At first both flint and steel were very crudely made, but later on, some of the steels were very ornamental. With them was used a tinder box, with its store of charred linen to catch the tiny flame as it leaped toward the steel, and this, too, must be considered in the review of oldtime lights.

Examples of these and the old forms of lighting are found in every part of New England and throughout the South, though perhaps the largest collection in any single section is found in Salem, the home of excellent examples of all things colonial. As one views them, he cannot but be impressed with their quaintness, and while no doubt he is thankful for the strides in science that have made possible the brilliant illumination of the present, yet in his heart he must acknowledge that the present lights, though in many in-stances undeniably beautiful, lack the charm of the oldtime types.



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