Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Illuminating eighteenth-century lighting

Recently, we've been thinking about what sort of lighting William Paca might have had in his summerhouse - if any at all. Eighteenth-century lighting in general is an interesting topic; everyday activities were governed by each individual's access - but mostly a lack of access! - to lighting.

Which types of candles and fittings would have been used in the house?
Spermaceti candles would have been favored by the Paca household. These were of high quality and would not have been used exclusively. Made from the oil found in the head of a sperm whale, spermaceti candles were described by John Adams in 1785 as giving "the clearest and most beautiful flame of any substance that is known in nature". This is an excerpt from Adams' attempts to convince William Pitt the Younger of the good sense in importing spermaceti candles from American whalers. He wrote, "we are all surprised that you prefer darkness".[1]

If you visit the William Paca House, many of the candlesticks on display are without candles. This is because the house is shown during the day; candles were so valuable that when they were not needed they would have been kept under lock and key.

James Gillray, Lady Godina's Rout, 1796
Notice the candles and the sconce, rather than the feathers and the low necklines. The man at the center of the etching is holding a pair of candlesnuffers. These would be used not to extinguish the flame, but - as this man is perhaps attempting, although he is so distracted that the snuffers are the wrong way up - to trim the candle wick. The cups at the side of the instrument are intended to catch the trimmed wick.

It was in the middle of the eighteenth century that wall lights known as girandoles (or sconces) came into fashion. Girandoles would often be designed in the rococo style, but one commentator from 1762 gives a more precise description: "four-armed cut glass candle-sticks, ornamented with stars and drops, properly called girandoles".[2] The term seems to have been used much more loosely than this. Girandoles were not only fixtures of cut glass, but of lacquered wood, brass, and silver.

Before sconces, most wall mirrors would not have been complete without a pair of metal candle branches attached. The prevalence of these features in early eighteenth century mirrors demonstrates that wall lighting was a very ordinary method of lighting a room from the beginning of the century.[3]

Stand-alone candlesticks were also used in increasing numbers throughout the eighteenth century. From about 1750 they tended to be taller and generally bigger, especially those of silver and Sheffield plate. Sheffield plate candlesticks of this kind are on display at the William Paca House.

Henry Sargent, Tea Party, 1824
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Chandeliers were a symbol of great extravagance in William Paca's time, but they were nevertheless popular in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.[4] Upon George III's visit to Bulstrode Park in Buckinghamshire, England, in 1779, Mrs Delany wrote "Her Grace had the house lighted up in a most magnificent manner ; the chandelier in the great hall was not lighted before for twenty years".[5] The expense of lighting eight or more candles in one small area of a room would only be borne in exceptional circumstances. Even when many candles could be afforded by a household, they were treated as a precious commodity. The wealthiest of men and women would avoid wasting candles when reading or sewing alone, just as their poorer contemporaries did.

Oil lamps in the home
Oil lamps did not enter the home on any great scale until the early 1780s, when the Argand lamp was invented. The cylindrical wicks in these lamps were placed between inner and outer tubes, allowing air to circulate and facilitating the burning of oil. The lamps allowed for a much brighter, cleaner light - most importantly, with a smokeless flame![6] These lamps still created dirt, unfortunately. Yet before Aimé Argand, a Swiss inventor, created the new lamp oil, lamps had produced far too much sooty smoke to be used in the home.

Oil lamps did not completely replace the candle, however. Quicker burning of oil meant that more oil was burned. This was costly. A lamp could not provide as much light as a single candle for as little money. However, on the same terms, a cluster of candles was no match for a lamp when more light was wanted.[7]

Lighting the streets
William Hogarth, 'Four Times of the Day: Night', 1737. © Trustees of the British Museum
In early eighteenth-century London, before the advent of oil lamps on the streets (from 1750), candles were relied upon to light the way home at night.

Joshua Reynolds, Cupid as Link Boy, c.1771
Link men and boys were hired to illuminate the streets during night-time journeys, or when a thick fog descended upon London. A "link" was a torch made of pitch and tow. These boys had a reputation for deceit - often leading unwitting travelers into dark alleys, where they would be assailed by footpads (thieves who targeted those travelling on foot). You will find such a boy crouching in the left corner of the Hogarth print above. Part of a novella from a 1773 London magazine describes the assumed nature of a link boy; "I recollected that his lordship was deeply in the science of filching, lying, outwitting, cheating, impudence, and other link-boy qualities."[8]

This portrait by Joshua Reynolds, laden with meaning, depicts Cupid disguised as a link boy - with black wings. The boy may appear sad, but he is also mischievous. Just as a link boy would play tricks on his customers, Cupid is unlikely to lead his customers along a simple path to love.

There were many opportunities for street crime at a time when travelers still relied on handheld lamps. The Rowlandson print below is an apt illustration of the pervasiveness of crime in unlit streets. To the far right of the print a woman says, "If this light is not put a stop too [sic] - we must give up our business. We may as well shut up shop." The situation would have been similar in America, though perhaps not so dire as that of the crime-ridden streets of London! William Paca lived in a time of transition - when the old methods of lighting the way through the dark were still in place, but new technologies were making rapid advancements.

Street lamps were of serious importance (for the aforementioned reasons!), and their development was of concern to some of the greatest minds of the time. In his memoirs, Benjamin Franklin wrote of his suggestions for the improvement of American streetlights in 1757; "I therefore suggested the [sic] composing them of four flat panes, with a long funnel above to draw out the smoke, and crevices admitting air below to facilitate the ascent of the smoke; by this means they were kept clean, and did not grow dark in a few hours, as the London lamps do".[9]

Thomas Rowlandson, A Peep at the Gas Lights in Pall-Mall, 1809. © Trustees of the British Museum

A few decades after William Paca left his house in Annapolis, however, oil lamps were being superseded by gas. In 1816, Rubens and Rembrandt Peale organized great displays of gas lighting on a huge scale, making themselves pioneers in the use of gas lighting in America.  Rubens' display of gas lighting in the Peale Museum in Baltimore was a great feat: "By March 1 five hundred feet of soldered tin pipe had been installed, and elegant fixtures, with cut-glass ornamentation, were in place ... a month later they had gas burning in the rooms, blue, clear, and odorless".[11]

Gas lighting was already developing quickly in England, but in Baltimore the Peales created extraordinary displays of light. Rembrandt Peale was active in the creation of the first American company for municipal gas lighting: the Gas Light Company of Baltimore. In gas lighting, Baltimore led the way for Philadelphia - making further trouble for those who worked best in the dark.

Written by OUIIP intern, Elena Porter

Further reading:

[1] Papers of John Adams, Volume 16: February 1784 - March 1785. Harvard University Press. p.15 (Google Books: link)
[2] Quoted in N. F. Little, "Lighting in Colonial Records", Old-Time New England, vol. 42, no.4 (1952), p.100. Referenced in E. D. Garrett, 'The American home: Part II: Lighting devices and practices', in L. S. Cooke (ed.), Lighting in America: From Colonial Rushlights to Victorian Chandeliers: A New and Expanded Edition. (Pittstown, New Jersey, 1984 (Revised Edition)), The Main Street Press. p.159
[3] R. W. Symonds, 'Eighteenth-Century Lighting Devices: Wall Fittings and Candlesticks', in L. S. Cooke (ed.), Lighting in America: From Colonial Rushlights to Victorian Chandeliers: A New and Expanded Edition. (Pittstown, New Jersey, 1984 (Revised Edition)), The Main Street Press. pp.106-109
[4] R. W. Symonds, 'Eighteenth-Century Lighting Devices: Wall Fittings and Candlesticks',  p.109
[5] J. Fowler and J. Cornforth, English Decoration in the 18th Century (London, 1983)p.222
[6] 'Argand burner', Britannica Academic Edition.
[7] J. Fowler and J. Conforth, English Decoration in the 18th Century, p.224
[8] The London magazine. Or, Gentleman's monthly intelligencer. Vol. XLII, 1773. London [England],  [1747-1783]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Oxford. 21 July 2014 
[9] Memoirs of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 1, McCarty & Davis: Philadelphia. p.51.
[11] C. C. Sellers, Charles Willson Peale (New York, 1969). MPublishing, University of Michigan Library. p.379. <http://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.00747.0001.001>

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