Unpaved Roadshow: ’Twas the time of darkness

The setting sun shrouded the typical early colonial home in darkness. For the ordinary American colonist bright lighting simply was not worth the candle, as the need for more light was secondary to the cost and inconvenience of providing it. Most Americans lived by the light of the hearth, postponing many tasks requiring more light until the rising sun.

An 1824 painting by Henry Sargent shows how a dim a candlelit a room could be.
An 1824 painting by Henry Sargent shows how a dim a candlelit a room could be.

To get an idea of how dim the lighting was, consider an 18th-century writer who described a room lit up by amassed candles for a grand ball as being as bright as day. He may well have been talking about a room equivalent to one lit by a 25-watt bulb today.

Candles provided the most satisfactory sort of illumination, but, due to the candle tax of 1706, which also forbade the making of homemade candles, wax candles became too expensive for most colonial households. So, the colonists often used oil lamps as a way to supplement firelight and costly candles.

The simplest kind of oil lamp was to pour some fish oil or kitchen grease into a cup and put a string wick into it.

This type of lamp was called a Crusie, the word thought to have come from the Scottish word “cruse,” a vessel for oil. It was a very simple arrangement, consisting of a circular iron pan with one side shaped into a channel that would receive a wick. A handle was attached opposite this channel with a wire link and an iron spike, shaped like a boat hook, was attached to the end of the handle. The hook would be jammed into the chink of a wall or secured to a shelf or mantle.

The crusie lamp design (left) was improved by the betty lamp (right), which was covered, confining the heat and decreasing the smoke.
The crusie lamp design (left) was improved by the betty lamp (right), which was covered, confining the heat and decreasing the smoke. Boyle Collection

Improvements to the primitive crusie lamps spawned the betty lamp, which was probably the most widely used lighting device in colonial America. “Betty,” from the German word “besser,” which means better, this lamp was considered a better lamp, since it was equipped with a covered hinged lid, which closed, meaning less spilled grease.

Peter Derr (1793-1868) of Berks County, Pennsylvania, was one of the more famous betty lamp makers. His lamps were usually dated and initialed and many of his betty lamps are in museums and private collections. When they do show up at auction, they command prices upwards of $5,000, although more common betty lamps can still be bought for as little as $100.

A feeble light was only one of the inconveniences for those who burned midnight oil, since oil burning lamps produced acrid fumes and smoke. So, in 1784, the first radically improved lighting device, a lamp more congenial to the common purse and irritable eyes alike, was put on the market. The new lamp, an invention of Ami Argand of Switzerland, fed oil from an elevated container to a tubular wick in a way that gave air to both the outer and inner surfaces of the wick. In that same year, a Frenchman named Quinquet pirated Argand’s invention and added a glass chimney to the lamp which served as a blower. Lighting entered a new era.

These lamps became immensely popular in America. American pressed-glass manufacturers eagerly put vast quantities of cheap, attractive, easy-to-clean models on the market, in addition to those of pewter, tin, and other materials. Most were made with double burners with two small wicks set close together, which gave more light than one large wick. While they never surpassed candles in popular favor, the lamps did enormously increase the demand for burning oil, largely whale oil, which became too costly for ordinary households as demand rose.

In the early Victorian period colza oil, from the rapeseed, became the most affordable and efficient oil for the Argand-type lamps. However, it was so heavy and thick that it had to be fed to the wick either by gravity from a reservoir above, or pumped up from below. And, the reservoir on many colza oil lamp designs was shaped like a classical urn and set to one side, which obstructed the light. By 1850, paraffin was introduced, which was much lighter than colza oil, enabling new lamp designs to place the reservoir below the flame and reflect better light.

By 1840, gas lighting was a major improvement in people’s ability to read, write or sew in the evenings. It was the last major breakthrough of the period, before both oil and gas lighting succumbed to electric lighting.

Thomas Edison consciously modeled his plans for an electric lighting system on gas light technology. By the time of his 1879 electric light invention, gas lighting was a mature, well-established industry, but one that had major flaws like gas leaks and fires. However, the gas infrastructure was in place and manufacturing facilities in operation. He designed generators instead of gas-making plants and used electrical conductors to carry current, much like pipes that ran under the streets distributing gas to end users. And, since gaslights could be operated independently, Edison designed his lamps to be capable of independent operation.

A pair of brass and frosted glass Argand lamps sold at auction for $400.
A pair of brass and frosted glass Argand lamps sold at auction for $400. Skinner Auctioneers

Early Argand lamps can be found for $500 and up, depending on the materials, the workmanship and color of the shade. Even though betty lamps were of an earlier period, they are less costly since they are much simpler devices. A betty lamp in original condition that dates from the 1700s was recently listed on eBay for $189. A wide array of converted gas lights, from sconces for a few hundred dollars, to ornate chandeliers for several thousand, are available for sale via shops and auctions. Antique lighting is a great way to accent any style of décor.

By Queen Victoria’s death in January 1901, electric lighting was still in its infancy and small towns and villages in the countryside were still almost exclusively lit by candles and oil lamps. It wasn’t until after World War I that the flip of the switch became the predominant source of light in the American home. The electric light had vanquished the night.

Michelle Galler is an antiques dealer, design consultant and realtor based in Georgetown. Her shop is in Rare Finds, in Washington, Va. Contact her antiques.and.whimsies@gmail.com.

Michelle Galler
About Michelle Galler 31 Articles
Michelle Galler has been an antique dealer and consultant for more than 25 years. Her business, Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities, is based in Washington, Va. If you have questions or finds, email her at antiques.and.whimsies@gmail.com.