I’ve spent time in north Georgia in a cabin with no electricity when the outdoor temperature hovered at between 5 and 10 degrees, and as large as I could build up the fire in the fireplace, water froze in the bucket 3 feet away necessitating breaking up the ice on top to get to the water.  I’ve spent time alone in such a cabin sitting just inside the back door with my back to the setting sun in order to see enough to read.  I’ve spent days at a time with a friend trekking through the woods with only a camp fire at night for light and warmth.  Alone in the dark with no cell phone, no electric lights inside or out, lighting becomes pretty important so I can appreciate the account I’m about to share.

Continuing from yesterday’s post on 18th century lighting, I’d like to share the following quote from The History of the Town of Lyndeborough, New Hampshire, 1735-1905, vol. 1. 

“Much has been written about ambitious youth studying by the light of the open fire or by the aid of pitch pine splints, doubtless all true; but it is also doubtless true that those first settlers went to bed as a rule almost as soon as it was “dark under the table.”  They had few books, no newspapers, and the out-of-door life, with its vigorous muscular labor in clearing the land, would be likely to promote a drowsy feeling, come night.  But if they were inclined to sit up late, the light of the open fire or of a pitch pine torch was all they had at first.  There were rude lamps in existence at that day, but they had no means to provide the oil to burn in them.  But as they began to have herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, candles came into use, and the making of the year’s supply of ‘tallow dips’ was quite an event in the household economy.

Peeled willow sticks about eighteen inches long, and a little less than a half-inch in diameter were provided, and on these were looped six strands of candle wicking of the length of the required ‘dip’.  These were placed about a couple of inches apart on the stick.  Two small poles were then placed on some support, generally two chairs.  These poles were long enough to hold some dozens of candles and were laid far enough apart to allow the candles to hang between.  A large kettle of tallow was then melted, and when all was ready, these wicks were dipped in the hot tallow.  In withdrawing them of course they stuck together more or less, and then a finger was used to separate them, and the stick was placed on the poles to cool.  By the time the last stickful was dipped, the tallow on the first had hardened sufficiently to allow of its being dipped again, and so the process was continued, the candles growing in size, until they were large enough.  Usually enough were made at a time to last a year.

Later, candle-molds came into use.  These were tin molds of the size and shape of a candle, fastened together in groups of a dozen.  The wicking was drawn through them and secured by a knot at the bottom.  Melted tallow was poured into them and allowed to cool.  These candles, it was claimed, were not as good as ‘dips’, being more inclined to run.  Although there were ‘snuffers’ in every household, it was a common practice to snuff the candle with the fingers, and it was quite a trick to do it without burning the fingers or putting the candle out.  By holding the candle between the eyes and the book or paper, (and incidentally catching the falling grease in one’s lap) one could read quite comfortably by its use.

Whale oil lamps were used to some extent in the early days, but were smoky things and only those who were considered opulent could afford them.”©