Let there be light! Candles in the time of Jane Austen

12 Jan 2016

One question we are frequently asked at Jane Austen’s House (especially in the winter!)  is “How did they light the house after dark?”


All sources of light at this time were based on flames.  These were “close light” that drew families together to sit round the fire or the candle to chat, sew, read or just doze.  Modern light by comparison is distant light – positioned high up on ceilings and encouraging each of us to spread out and follow our own ‘electric star’.


In Austen’s time the most common source of light for households was the fire in the hearth, but there were also candles of three main types, which not only provided varying levels of illumination, but also indicated your position on the social scale.


Rushlights were the cheapest form of lighting, used in poor households. They have been used in Britain since before the Roman invasion and were still in use in the early nineteenth century; importantly they were not taxed.  Rushes were gathered in July and August.


They were then “peeled”, that is the outer skin of the rush was mainly removed revealing the inner pith.  They were then dried and dipped into melted fat, using a special pan called a grisset.  The fat was allowed to dry and then the rush was dipped 8 or 9 times more, leaving to set between dips.  The fat used for this was the leftovers from cooking, mainly mutton and bacon fat.


To burn a rushlight it would be placed in a pincer which could be free standing or wall mounted and it would have to be moved constantly as it burnt down – this was usually a task assigned to the younger children.  Each rushlight would last for 20 – 30 minutes and gave a feeble smoky light.  To give a brighter light the rush could be lit at both ends (hence the phrase “burning the candle at both ends”), but, of course it burnt more rapidly.


Tallow candles would have been the most common candles in such a home as the Austens’; these were made by tallow chandlers who had their own Royal Charter granted in 1462.  In a letter of 15th September 1796 to Cassandra, Jane mentions the tallow chandler, Penlington at the Crown & Beehive, Charles St, Covent Garden.  Tallow candles were subject to tax.

Tallow candles were made from rendered (melted) animal fat , the best and most expensive coming from the first skimmings of the fat and the worst from squeezing the animal bones and blending the results with the tallow.  Tallow candles could be made by two different methods:

1.  Dipping a wick of twisted cotton, hemp or flax into the tallow, then drying it and repeating the process until the candle was about one inch thick.  Machines meant several candles could be dipped at once


2. Tallow candles were also  made by pouring rendered fat into candle moulds with a wick held in the middle. One huge advantage of moulded candles was that they were a uniform size and so could be fitted into candle holders. 


Tallow candles had to have thick wicks and these constantly needed trimming to stop the candle from smoking; the wicks had to be snuffed – snuffing does not refer to putting out a candle, but to cutting the wick – they could need trimming up to 10 times an hour! 


The best candles were made of beeswax, and they were also the most heavily taxed!  They burned much brighter than tallow candles and did not need trimming so often – this is why they were always used in chandeliers.


The beeswax from the hive was melted and all impurities removed.  The wax was then cooled and flattened into thin sheets.  It might then be dipped (for cheaper wax candles) or made by ladling wax over suspended wicks, which was labour intensive and more expensive, but created the best candles.  The candle was then rolled on a moist wooden surface to make sure it was cylindrical.


Even the very wealthy used wax candles sparingly ; Jane’s brother, Edward, would have used them for entertaining, but tallow candles would have been used for everyday life.  Mrs Elton’s claim, in Emma, that her friend, Mrs Bragge, was so wealthy  she even had wax candles in the schoolroom, would have been instantly recognised by contemporary readers as untrue, no-one would do such a thing.


Jane Austen lived at a time when many new developments in lighting were occurring – she would have seen the first gas lamps in London, in Pall Mall, in 1807.  By 1814, when she went to London to negotiate over the publication of Emma, Mayfair had gas lighting too.  The Argand lamp was introduced in the late eighteenth century which eventually produced a revolution in lighting in the home and the abolition of all candle tax in 1831 made lighting much cheaper for everyone.   Lighting plays an important role in Austen’s works, but she makes little direct mention of lamps and candles as she did not anticipate being read in an age of instant light – but that is a discussion for another blog.


Sue Dell - Collections Volunteer


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