Now, when we walk into our homes we can just flip a light switch and have instant bright light. That wasn’t so in Regency times – electric lighting was many
many years away, and gas lighting was only just coming into existence – very expensive and somewhat dangerous still.
So – how did they light things? In an earlier post I touched on this and talked about such things as chandeliers in ballrooms, and lighting in large wealthy homes. Today, I want to look in more detail at the simple aspects of lighting in daily life, in the homes of the common people as well as the wealthy.
Lets start with an obvious fact that we, today, forget – all lighting, back then, involved flame. Whether it was a candle, or an oil lamp, or just the light from the fire in the hearth, flame was involved. In a sense, lighting your home was dangerous! Once it got dark for the evening, unless you were wealthy enough to afford very expensive pure beeswax candles, in large quantities, you really could not see well enough to read much, or to do detailed work (like embroidery etc). So the options to keep yourself busy were limited!
In midwinter, in England, when it got light at 9.30 in the morning and was dark again by 3.30 or so in the afternoon, it was rather challenging to get much done at all. Candles and lamps also give off smoke – and if you are using cheap tallow candles, that smoke smells and is greasy – it ends up putting a dirty layer on the walls and the furniture of your rooms. So people tended to minimise the amount of time that candles were burnt (also because candles were somewhat expensive.)
Scholars, who read a lot by candlelight, seamstresses, who sewed long into the night by candlelight, and people in similar situations, all tended to go blind early in life, from the eyestrain.
Most houses were not at all well lit, simply to reduce the cost of all those candles. Massive numbers of candles in a house, and in chandeliers for a Ball, was pretty much a conspicuous declaration of how wealthy you were. Similarly, the fact that the ton could afford to sleep until midday, and stay out until 2 or 3 am, was also only possible due to the wealth that was expended on lighting the homes and clubs they frequented.
There were some clever things done to get more light out of each candle. Early chandeliers applied the same principle that makes mirror balls fun – lots of bits of crystal, and in some cases mirrors, made up the chandeliers, so the light as multiplied by all of the reflective surfaces. Similarly, even though mirrors were expensive, the ballrooms and reception rooms of houses of the wealthy might have a wall lined with mirrors, specifically to multiply the light at night.
The same principle applies to many closed lantern types – either oil lanterns or candle lanterns, where the inside of the metal lantern body had mirrors on it. When the front shutter was opened, the light that came out was multiplied by all of the internal reflections in the lantern.
But, the end result of all this was still that, if you wanted to get up in the middle of the night, you had to light a candle somehow, and anywhere you went in the house at night, you had to carry a candle with you, or feel your way about in the dark.
Next time you read a book where everyone is wandering about stately homes at night, or reading, or writing etc, after dark, spare a thought for how it really was, with all of those candles, and dark flickering shadows in the corners!