Seasons of Light: How Animals Used to Light America

S. F. Van Meller, Candle Light Effect, Market Scene, 19th century, Collection of the New-York Historical Society: S-1

If you come to the New-York Historical Society this winter break you can go on the Seasons of Light scavenger hunt. This hunt celebrates the holiday season by exploring how America has been lit through the centuries. Our museum has so many artifacts related to light it was hard to choose what to put on the hunt!

It might surprise you to know that before electric light, animals were crucial to lighting American homes. How? Well, when European settlers first came to America in the 1600s, there was no electricity (if you are reading this blog, you probably already knew that). These settlers would have lit their homes with…you guessed it…candles. You may think these candles were made from beeswax; however, bees are not native to North America. Colonists did start bringing over honey bees in the early 1600s, but by far the cheapest and most common candle found in this time was made from tallow. Tallow is animal fat. These candles were cheaper to make or buy than any other type of candle (other candles were made from beeswax, myrtle wax, bayberries, or something called spermaceti that we’ll talk about in a bit.)

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Chamber candlestick circa 1780-1830. Collection of the New-York Historical Society: 1937.1493a

If a person lived in a remote place, not near a chandler (professional candle maker), he or she would save the drippings from his/her cooked meat for a long time and then boil them all at once to make that year’s  worth of candles. Can you imagine the smell coming from a cauldron of boiling, rotten fat? Now can you imagine how the candle made from that fat would smell, especially when burning? Tallow candles, though cheap, were the worst smelling of all candles. That said, no seventeenth or eighteenth century home would have had many of them lit at once. If you traveled back to a colonial, candle-lit home it would seem very dim with perhaps only one or two candles lit and only where activity was happening.

Spermaceti was the most expensive substance used to make candles. It was also used later in oil lamps. Spermaceti was an expensive but popular source of lamp oil until the invention of electricity because it burns brightly, gives off no smoke, and has no odor. Interestingly, it comes from a whale. More interestingly, it comes from the head of a sperm whale! A large sperm whale could have as much as three tons of the substance in its head. Sperm whale blubber could also be converted into oil, another source of fuel for light, a bit inferior to spermaceti. Today it is illegal in most countries to hunt and kill whales but it was big business in the nineteenth century. Deep ocean whaling began off the cost of Nantucket in 1712. By 1850, New Bedford, Massachusetts was the wealthiest city in the nation per capita because it was the heart of the whaling industry. Nineteenth century whalers killed hundreds of thousands of sperm whales for their blubber and spermaceti.  Here is an oil lamp from our collection made to hold whale oil or spermaceti.

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This pewter lamp, circa 1800-1850 was made to burn whale oil. Collection of the New-York Historical Society: 1932.6

Eventually kerosene, derived from petroleum, became a cheaper and more abundant source of lamp oil. Even a home lit by oil lamps, whether whale oil or kerosene, would seem dim compared to a home lit by an electric bulb.

If you want to know more about light, come do the scavenger hunt. If you want to know more about whaling, or at least an amazing rescue mission of trapped whaling ships in 1898, read the Impossible Rescue and come talk about it with us at our book club meeting on Sunday, January 5. Most of all, have a happy holiday from all of us here at the DCHM!


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