A quick history of domestic lighting

The history of domestic lighting has been governed by economics, but also by snobbery and tradition, and occasionally by a dangerous desire for novelty.

As ‘If Walls Could Talk’ is being repeated on the TV at the moment, I thought you might enjoy a quick history of domestic lighting. Yawn, what a dull subject, you might think! But just think about life without electricity.  One of the biggest changes in domestic life ever must have been the moment when the lights came on in the late nineteenth century.  Before that, people must have had a cat-like ability to manage in low light levels.

For centuries, rushlights were the poor person’s light-source of choice.  You make them by repeatedly coating a rush in hot fat, building up the layers to create a rather scrawny candle.  These long, gently-curving lights were balanced in special holders.  To double the illumination, you could ignite both top and bottom (‘burning the candle at both ends’).

The expression ‘the game’s not worth the candle’ makes it clear that lighting a candle felt like burning money itself.  The twenty minutes for which one rushlight lasted was a familiar unit of time, and had to be exploited to the maximum.  A housewife might have invited village neighbours over to share a rushlight for an interval of hurried darning.

Only the rich could afford a profusion of beeswax candles.  In large households, a daily ration of candles was often included in employment conditions, and the fate of candle-ends was hotly disputed: they were the preserve of senior servants, who’d sell them on to supplement their wages.

Yet there was another, cheaper alternative.  The tallow candle was made from animal fat, ideally sheep or cow, because ‘that of hogs … gives an ill smell, and a thick black smoke’.  The art of creating the longest-lasting blend was very valuable, and in 1390 tallow chandlery was listed among the foremost crafts of London.  Tallow candles had a horrible brown colour and made a dreadful meaty stink.  Despite this, desperate people would eat them in times of famine for the calories they contained.

Apart from the unpleasant smell, the great drawback to tallow candles was the need to snuff.  Their wicks had to be trimmed every few minutes or they smoked.  And, in an age of candles, fire-light and timber-framed houses, accidents were common.  Once in seventeenth-century London a servant named Obadiah illicitly took a candle up to his bedchamber.  There it fell over and burnt ‘half a yard of the sheet’.  But the quick-thinking Obadiah woke a fellow servant, and together they ‘pissed out the fire as well as they could’.

Interiors lit by candle-light were designed to magnify the limited light available.  The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles was the first room in history to be illuminated to something approaching the light-levels we’d find safe and pleasant today.  Its ubiquitous glass reflected candle-light so effectively that the French court began for the first time to hold regular evening parties.

In prosperous Georgian drawing rooms there was likewise silver or sparkle everywhere.  The gold rims of plates, the silver of keyholes, even the metallic embroidery on waistcoats: all were intended to aid the eye and maximise candlelight.  In fact, a lady’s silver dress had the effect of making its wearer gleam.

The light, bright colours of Georgian interiors would be replaced by rich, dark hues in the Victorian age.  Deeper tones helped hide the soot produced by oil lamps, which began to replace candles in the later eighteenth century.  ‘I have seen houses almost filled with the smoke from lamps, and the stench of the oil’, one footman recollected.  In grand houses, lamps required a new room for the cleaning of their glass shades.  The Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle had a trifling 400 for his hard-working servants to polish.

Yet the oil lamp would soon be superseded by gas, which made its appearance in factories, theatres and street-lighting long before it penetrated the home.  Today our gas is natural, piped from pockets beneath the sea.  It burns much more brightly than the baked coal gas used between late Georgian times and the 1970s.

Gas made its debut in London when an entrepreneur named Frederick Windsor organised a public demonstration of the new lighting for George III’s birthday in 1807.  People both marvelled at and feared the properties of this ‘illuminated air’.  Windsor reassured potential clients that gas is even ‘more congenial to our lungs than vital air’.

By the 1840s, gas began to make a tentative appearance in the urban home.  Gradually it became a middle-class must-have.  A contributor to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine even recommended that parties ‘must always be given by gas light … if it be daylight outside, you must close the shutters and draw the curtains’, the better to show off your gasoliers.

Gas must have provided a quite stunning improvement to people’s ability to read, write or sew in the evenings with minimal effort.  It nevertheless had many drawbacks.  There were frequent explosions, and it replaced the oxygen in the air with black and noxious deposits.  The aspidistra, a hugely popular plant, became so because it survived well in oxygen-starved conditions.  Victorian ladies frequently fainted partly because of tight-lacing, but also because of a lack of oxygen in their gas-lit drawing rooms.

The arrival of electricity in the 1880s caused a stir.  It was immensely expensive and therefore terribly chic.  A light bulb cost the same as the average week’s wages, and you needed your own home generator.  Several Fifth Avenue millionaires installed generators in their houses in 1880s New York, and Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt even went to a costume ball as Electric Light.  But these early adopters ran the risk of accidents.  After her electrical system caught fire Mrs Vanderbilt panicked and had it taken out.

The widespread adoption of electricity was delayed for many years because each generator had a different output.  So different towns had different currents, and manufacturers were reluctant to develop light fittings because there was no national market for their products.  Not until the National Grid was created in the 1930s did electricity achieve ubiquity.

Of course this bright white light was enormously convenient, but once electricity had vanquished the night, we lost something significant: the art of entertaining ourselves in low light levels.  Conversation, singing and storytelling were all the casualties of modern technology.

10 thoughts on “A quick history of domestic lighting

  1. derek

    A great summary of lighting.

    We’re trying to find out when/if people might have had wall mounted candles with mirrors behind for maximising the available light.

  2. Niall Leonard

    You’re right about technology killing conversation, but it was TV and radio rather than electric lighting that did that I think, and isolated people from each other, because they could get their entertainment at home without meeting up with others.
    A few years ago a power cut in my street forced me and my neighbours to get together over a bottle of wine and play board games by candlelight. It was a magical evening that brought home to me how much we’d lost.

    Great article, by the way, and very well written.

  3. Rob Houghton

    My Grandmother had gas lighting in council property in 1942. Visiting her as a child during the war I recall how great care was taken not to damage the gas mantles which like everything else in wartime were in short supply

  4. Chris Hey

    Why do older houses traditionally have a pendant light by a bay window? Is it because there would be a dressing table there?

    1. Chris Mason

      I think the pendant light was placed nearer to the window in bedrooms so that a person’s shadow when undressing was not cast on to the closed curtains to be seen from the street. You would undress between the light and the interior wall and your shadow would be cast only on to the wall.

  5. Chris Hey

    Do older houses traditionally have a pendant light by a bay window because there would be a dressing table there?

  6. kerry yoder

    “A rushlight is formed by soaking the dried pith of the [mostly, peeled] rush plant in fat or grease”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rushlight I believe that you are describing ‘rush candles’ in your lively and illuminating article.

  7. kerry yoder

    Consider gold lettering on the spines of old books. Pale in daylight, they gleam vividly by lamp or candle-light, just when one burns the midnight oil.

  8. Oliver Standing

    Usefully, but Ms Worsley misses out quite a lot!
    The advent of Colza oil (rapeseed) lamps in the 1760’s, the development of mineral oil (paraffin) for lighting in the 1840’s, the use of acetylene for lighting in the same decade, the Argand lamp etc.etc.

  9. Joe Rock

    I am looking at the sort of lamps used by drawing academies in the early 18th century; in particular this one:

    I would like to know if they were dirty or spluttered a lot? Any contribution welcome. I would also like to know the source of Lucy’s quote by the footman: ‘I have seen houses almost filled with the smoke from lamps, and the stench of the oil’


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