Lighting the House in the Regency Period

Today, I have have dealt with another power outage in my area, and I have privately cursed how dark my home is 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.

candlesAt 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.Candles

img_3004-e1272244558721-200x300Tallow 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.rushlight2

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.

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in British history, Great Britain, Living in the Regency, real life tales, Regency era and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Lighting the House in the Regency Period

  1. Clare Flynn says:

    Surprising there weren’t more problems with eyesight – especially as people read and sewed by candlelight.

  2. The lot of the lower classes would not have been much especially in the winter months, as I recall it used to start getting dark somewhere between 4 and 5 in the afternoon and light near 9 the next morning, The cold would have prevented the leaving open of doors or windows to allow some ventilation and I suppose the rooms were cramped and small. The smell would no doubt have been on the nose; but I suppose those people didn’t notice it as they’d have known no better.
    My maternal grandmother who was born around 1865/66 in some Essex country village must have lived under such conditions, as a child she served as a domestic servant in I suppose the manor house or some such in that village (our family records are not very clear).

    It did her no harm apparently, she was still bearing children in the 20th century, my father was born on 1905 and there were another 3 or 4 after him, She died in 1952 I think it was aged 87.

    It was not possible for me ever to talk to them about those Victorian days even had I have wanted to as they were both stone deaf, as my father became and a I soon will be (70%+ loss as of now)

  3. I always learn so much from your blog! Thanks!

  4. vvaught512 says:

    Thank you so much for this information. It will help when I write so much. I’ve posted to my blog, tweeted, and shared on FB!

  5. Jude Knight says:

    Great post, Regina. It is hard for us to imagine the consequences of poor light and therefore a shortened day. I was reading about weavers lofts, and how rows of cottages were built with a single loft that ran the length of the row with huge windows for natural light. Even so, in winter, the day began late and ended early. I wonder what effect that had on the number of birthdays in particular months? One imagines a spike in births 9 months after the first month of shortened days. Or is that just me?

    • Not simply you, Jude Knight. We had a powerful ice storm some ten + years back in December 2002. There was no electrical power for more than a week. Most distressing… In the past, I have read and written chapters of my books by candlelight, but it would not be my first choice. Think what the eye strain could do to such conditions as glaucoma.

  6. Lynne Holland says:

    I remember a film years ago – Barry Lyndon, I think it was, where the director insisted that the only lighting of scenes be by candlelight. It was so dark that the actors could barely be seen, but it was a good indication of exactly how dark all the rooms would have been. How could they have read all the tiny print in books and newspapers, or written letters with so little light?

    • Several scenes in the 1995 version of “Persuasion” used candles with little back lighting. As a student of film, I found it remarkable. I will check out Barry Lyndon’s works.

  7. Thank you for this post. As I was growing up in the 70s, 1970s that is, I lived in a house with a large family and we used candles for light. I worked at a pioneer education centre and lived without running water, electricity or plumbing. I was and still am an avid reader and would read by candle well into the wee small hours, my eyesight was not harmed by this. It is only now in my 50s that I am needing glasses to read as I have spent so many hours on a computer in the last two years that I strained my eyes. Occasionally we used a kerosene lamp but the smell was too acrid to have all night and it was expensive. My personal experiences inform my writing but it is always valuable to have accurate information about an era and I appreciate coming to this blog on occasion to find out more.

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