Let’s actually think about lighting. Today, we tend not to – we turn the switch and the light comes on (unless there is a power outage…..). But…. in Regency
times, there was no electricity yet…. so….. how did they light their houses?
how did they light those big ballrooms? how did chandeliers work, if they
weren’t wired in?
Starting with the obvious – all lighting had to come from fire, in some form.
Be that rushlights, oil lamps, candles, or the very new (and expensive still) gas
lamps. Candles came in two main types – beeswax, regarded as the superior
form, as they smelled good, burned with a whiter light, and lasted longer than
the other type, which were made from tallow (rendered animal fat). The very poor could not afford candles, and used rushlights – strips of dried rushes (the plant that grows in the edge of streams and lakes), twisted together to form a sort of candle shape and lit on one end.
The common people used tallow candles, and maybe oil lamps if they could afford one (many different types of oils were used in these, including whale oil, which, apparently, didn’t smell very nice at all!). The wealthy used beeswax candles and higher quality oil lamps. The very wealthy used high grade beeswax candles, oil lamps, and, if they were open to new inventions, had gas lamps installed with piped gas. No matter who you were, there was no easy ‘flip a switch’ to get light – you needed a flint and steel to strike a spark to light your candle or lamp, or a fire in your hearth to light it from.
But what about those chandeliers? We see pictures of the ballrooms of stately homes, with huge chandeliers, draped with many amazing sparkling crystals, way up high near the ceiling. How did they light those? How did they even get to them, to light them?
The basic facts – chandeliers had all of those dangling crystals, not because they looked pretty (although they did) but because the crystals reflected and re-reflected the light, multiplying it manyfold, to better light a big space. Most chandeliers had dozens, or, in some cases, hundreds, of candles mounted on them, to create enough light to reflect. The really interesting bit was how they lit them. Most of the time, the candles were not even in the holders on the chandelier – the ballroom, when not in use for a major function, would be lit by normal candles or gas lights in sconces mounted around the walls.
When a big function or ball was planned, the chandeliers were put to use. Each chandelier was suspended from a big chain, which went up to a large (very securely mounted) metal ring at the ceiling. But the chain didn’t stop there – it was long, and went through the ring, across to another ring on the ceiling at the side of the room, through that, and down to an anchor point at floor level, where a large amount of chain was coiled around special mountings. So, to fit the candles and light them, the chain was uncoiled and the chandelier was slowly and carefully lowered to the floor, with the chain carefully paid out to do so. Once the candles were fitted, and lit, it was equally carefully hauled back up, and the chain anchored and coiled again. If you were wealthy enough, you might actually have a mechanical winch for your chandeliers, but, mostly, it was the brute strength of your assembled footmen that did the job.
So next time you just flip a switch, and bright light fills your house, spare a thought for the challenges of lighting in Regency times!