Today, I have have dealt with three power outages in my area, and with each, I have privately cursed how dark is my home without the power of electricity. I have had to go without lights, TV, the internet, phone service, etc., and this modern-day “deprivation” has set me to thinking about the days of the Regency era when the almighty CANDLE ruled the home.
Until the Victorian Era, candles, lanterns, and rush-lights served as the principal means of lighting the Georgian styled home, and like every other aspect of Regency life, the use of the these sources of light adhered to their own “hierarchy” of use.
At the top of the Candle Hierarchy was the beeswax candle. These candles were more expensive than the others and could be left unattended for longer periods than could tallow or rush lights. However, they did melt faster than tallow candles. Wax candles were used by the very rich to prove their superiority to others. Wax candles were used in chandeliers because they burned themselves out rather than having to be snuffed out by the servants.
Tallow candles, usually made from mutton fat, were the main source of light in middle class homes and the lower gentry. They left behind a most annoying odor and did not burn evenly. Generally, the flame had to be snuffed out to prevent the charred wick falling into the tallow. If this happened, a “gutter” formed and melted wax would flow over everything. The tallow candle offered poor lighting and did not last for long.
Rush-lights were used by the poor. Rush-lights were made by dipping the stripped pith of common rushes into hot animal fat, often bacon fat. Rushes are commonly 2 feet long. They were held in place by a stand with a clip, and they usually burned out in an hour or so. The poor sometimes chose to burn tallow candles, but they were not economical. Eleven rushes would cost a family a farthing.
It was commonplace to have only two candlesticks in each room. In some homes, wall sconces with mirrors behind them increased the lights. These sconces were typically mounted on the chimney-breast.
Unlike the homes on the Continent, most homes in Georgian London were slow to accept oil burning lamps. Ami Argand of Geneva demonstrated his improved lamp in 1783 to the French Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately for Argand, the French Academy did not take well to the experiment. So, Argand brought his invention to London. Argand lamps using Colza oil were used in some wealthier London homes, but they were very expensive and were “plagued” by the cumbersome need to mount the oil reservoir above the level of the burner. This mounted reservoir blocked off the light from one side of the lamp. After 1798, a pump was available to force the oil upwards.
Candles were more economical and remained the main source of light until the mid-19th Century.