Friday, October 28, 2005

Ill Read by Candlelight

When modern day commentators speak with conviction about Adam Smith’s views on capitalism they are out by a hundred years or more. Of course, most of them (and most economists, too) have not read Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” (1776), and most of them have not even heard of Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759), let alone read its contents. It is most likely that such people, blithely talking about Smith’s alleged status as the ‘Father of Capitalism’, have no idea about life in the mid-18th century and just how bereft it was of all the products (and services) which are taken for granted in most households (even the poorest). What products they used came not from capitalist enterprises, capitalist retailers or capitalist wholesalers, but from individual, often local, trades people, usually only marginally better off than their customers.

Among the 21st century’s disregarded, but absolutely ubiquitous, taken-for-granted product is electricity. Its most common use is in lighting a home. Walk in, switch on, and forget about it, until time to switch off and go out or got to sleep.

Fiona Houston writes a most interesting piece in The Herald (Glasgow, Scotland) “The light that never goes out”, which is on a feature of daily life in the 18th century (and most of the 19th century, and among poorer families well into the 20th too). She refers to candle light. She writes about how candles were made and used, how they worked, how they were taxed by nosey excise men, and how they were marginally better than total darkness, and terrifying to imaginative children send to bed in the dark. She also reveals something about her regular use of them in her life today.

In summary: Fiona Houston’s article is well worth a read by anybody blasé about the boring consumer opulence of his or her modern life:

"The waning of the light fills me with gloom. At the start of the month I could still cook in the twilight. Just a few days later I needed a candle. During the summer, living out of doors much of the time, I was burning very few. Now I'm forcibly reminded that winter evenings require four if I am to enjoy a reasonable level of lighting.

My understanding of "reasonable" is generous by eighteenth-century standards. Candles were largely home-made from tallow. The process is messy, long and tedious. The results were carefully husbanded to last through the dark months. Even the gentry did not waste them, and certainly not on children....

That lamp would have been a crusie. Paraffin was not available and lamps were still of the primitive, boat-shape that had been used since time immemorial. It would probably have burned whale oil…It has a raised channel on which to place the wick, made from the pith of the bog rush.

First I must extract the pith. I had done it before but had forgotten the trick. I had to consult my mentor in these matters, Patrick Cave-Browne. He is probably the most knowledgeable person in Scotland about all things relating to combustion: a regular fire-wizard. It is Patrick who lent me his tinder box. He not only showed me how to strike a light with a flint on steel, but has come at intervals with new flints to replace the blunt ones... He has made candle moulds for me and initiated me into many arcane (and smelly) processes.

Dipping rush-lights requires a deep cylinder of melted tallow. I had to beg more fat from the butcher and render it down slowly in my big pan over the fire. You add some water and just let it stew for hours, a stinking business. Then you extract the membranes and stringy bits and let the mass cool, breaking the fat off the top of the liquid. It's clean and white and keeps for ages. I made pairs of rush wicks and dipped one in each tube, bringing them out to hang over two nails while the next and the next went in. By the time six pairs were hanging on my rack of nails (made by Patrick, of course), the first was cool enough to dip again. Working outside, the tallow cooled sufficiently quickly to make good "dips" after 10 immersions in the tubes. But these had to be topped up repeatedly, so there was lots of dashing in and out of the cottage with a pan of hot tallow. Working inside more dips were needed and the whole place reeked.

… you have to be vigilant to move the stub as it nears the twig or you would set the holder on fire. That makes me reflect on how static people were. Once the lights were lit you were at home, in one room and that is where you stayed. You would see whether a wick needed to be trimmed or a rush-light moved up in its holder. You wouldn't go off to another room, or if you did, you would take the light with you.

Candles burn for three to six hours, depending on the type of tallow (beef or mutton) and the size of the wick. Patrick has kindly made me two moulds but production is slow. They take hours to cool so only two candles can be made at once. It's best to do it at the same session as rush-light dipping, when there's a tallow pot on the fire for some time, otherwise the heating and reheating of the fat gets tedious. At least I don't have the added problem of secrecy. Candles were taxed, so moulds were hidden away and used in private, in the hope that neither the excise man nor a busybody neighbour would see.

Seeing, of course, is what it's all about. I ran tests on my means of lighting. I can read by a modern candle, though it's easier with two. It is more difficult with a tallow candle and even more so with the smaller flame from a rush-light. It's impossible with the light from a crusie. .. One evening, when the fire was low, I tried living by its light alone. The glow was enough to help me cross the room without bumping into things. But the corners were in deep shadow. Trying to cook close underneath the lamp taxed my patience. Yet this was how most houses in Scotland were lit for generation after generation.

I sat in the semi-darkness that night, watching the small but steady flame, and thought about people in the past. They had to read by the smallest of lights. But read they did. Two hundred years ago there were many more literate folk in Scotland than in England. Dorothy Wordsworth was surprised by several well-read Lowland cottagers. Eliza Grant mentions Highland saw-millers, a man and a boy, who busied themselves reading the classics and geography as they waited for a log to travel through the mill. All those Enlightenment figures, too, from Adam Smith and David Hume, sons of lairds, to the poets Robert Burns and Robert Fergusson, both from poorer homes, all of them had to spend many months of the year reading by candle-light, rush-light or crusie. It's easy to overlook what a challenge this represents.

And fire light, too. It's a winter pleasure of mine to take away the girdle and pot and let the flames climb a little. The flickering light chases away the inner gloom as well as the darkness in the room.”

Read Fiona Houston’s article on life by candlelight in today’s Herald (Glasgow, Scotland, UK) at: and re-think, if you need to, just how different the inconvenience of daily life was for those writing without electricity in the 18th century before capitalism.


Blogger kz said...

Ohh, winter's such a beautiful yet depressing time of the year. I, otoh, keep my girdles on to bust off those chilly nights. I'm talking about a different kind of girdle here (something you can don on: panty girdles). :P

10:07 a.m.  

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