Lighting Early Homes

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More illumination is provided in this bedroom than would have been the case in 1700, but nothing looks overdone: candles, an electrified sconce, and low-wattage bulbs.

More illumination is provided in this bedroom than would have been the case in 1700, but nothing looks overdone: candles, an electrified sconce, and low-wattage bulbs.

Colonial interiors may have been dim, but the devices used to increase candlepower were often brilliant, or so it seems to our nostalgic eyes. We can hardly resist the charm of an early wall sconce—its mirrored back-plate throwing the light of a single flame back into the room—or a blown-glass hurricane hung from the hall ceiling, or a pierced tin lantern with an aged patina. Many of these will be electrified today, of course.

From 1660 to 1780, grease lamps, candles, and firelight were the sources of illumination. Candles were expensive and candlesticks, for tabletop or floor, were rare, though today’s restorations will include lighting in every room. Reproduction candlesticks, chandeliers, sconces, and lanterns are quite authentic, and many craftspeople offer the date and region of the original model. (Most devices are sold for candle-burning or electrified.)

Wall sconces, often in pair, varied tremendously according to the whim of the tinsmith, and that’s still true. The earliest sconces had backings of tin to amplify light, with mirrored versions appearing around 1730. Sheet-metal fixtures were the rule from about 1690 to 1810; rod-arm fixtures date to 1740–1820. Glass was made in the Colonies after 1750, thus making devices with glass more affordable and common.

Richard Scofield 18th-century lantern with a straight-arm bracket.

Richard Scofield 18th-century lantern with a straight-arm bracket.

Crude grease and oil lamps were also in use. The so-called Betty (“better”) lamp of iron or tin, featuring a closed oil pan and a wick, was an improvement over primitive rag-and-lard lamps; used until 1820 and in rural areas as late as 1850, the Betty lamp was nonetheless smelly, smoky, and dangerous.

The wholly American whale-oil burner was another improvement, but again came with an odor. The Argand lamp of 1783 made wicked oil lamps safer and more practical, and Argand burners were produced in many decorative forms. Kerosene lamps eclipsed oil lamps after 1850, and the lighting advancements of the Victorian era ensued.