This is the first of a series of four posts concerned with the particulars of running the country house through lighting, heating and cleaning. Their purpose is to bring together several sources in order to demonstrate how the country house operated at a domestic level, and perhaps in a way we might hope to understand today. As visitors we see the grandeur of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the plush clutter of the nineteenth century and steady modernisation of the twentieth century, and yet we often ask how architectural arrangements affected daily routines. Many houses have opened their servants’ halls, butler’s pantries, or nurseries for the public to view over the past two decades, but many struggle within the laws of health and safety to reconstruct the ‘feel’ of daily living. Of course, as visitors we cannot expect to stay overnight in drafty chambers, clean our hands and feet in wash basins, read by candlelight, or sit by open fires but we can understand the needs of past generations in creating warm, well-lit, clean and secure homes. For the social microcosm that is the country house, these needs were expensive to achieve and demanded a great deal of manual labour.
This post is a glimpse at how developments in artificial lighting changed the way in which the country house operated. There are four components to the history of lighting in the home; candle (naked flame), oil, gas, and electricity. The apparatus of which are usually still visible in some country houses, but in most cases have been swept away. There is a lot to be covered within this topic, so I shall begin with the humble candle!
I am most grateful to Anthony Wells-Cole and James Lomax whose knowledge of the Temple Newsam collections in Leeds have proved invaluable for this subject matter and the lighting of the country house generally.
The types of candle lighting; Spermaceti, the best were made from the fatty white substance found in the head of the sperm whale and produced a clear white smokeless flame; Beeswax produced a clear smokeless flame with an indifferent smell, and initially used only in churches; Tallow, the most common type of candle was made from the hard white fat found around the kidneys and caul of animals (mainly beef cattle and sheep), but they produced an inferior flame as well as a foul smell in comparison to the more expensive spermaceti and beeswax candles; Rushlight or dip candle, was the poor man’s candle and was an ancient method of producing light made from the pithy part of a peeled rush dipped, often repeatedly, into hot liquid animal fat in order to build up layers around the wick.
The best thing when writing about the lighting equipment associated with the country house is that almost all these varieties would have been present at some point. Rushlights or hand-dipped candles were an ancient device and would have still been used by some servants when rising before daylight and completing their evening duties. They would also have been the presence of rushlights throughout dark basement corridors. On average they would burn for about fifteen to twenty minutes, and would need constant attention in order for the rush to be drawn up through the holder. Wax and tallow candles formed the backbone of the lighting industry from the Middle Ages with each having their own guild but with vastly different costs in the retail value of their produce. Influenced by specific laws on production and pricing, wax and tallow candles eventually fell foul of Customs and Excise when in 1709 a tax was introduced on all English and imported candles; the rate at this time on wax was fourpence per pound, and one halfpenny per pound on tallow.
In attempts to keep costs down in the country house, many candles were made from estate produce. In other instances, pure wax could be obtained from the open market, including scented and coloured waxes from the Colonies. At Castle Howard, Isabella Carlisle noted the cost of essentials in her own abstract of the household accounts between 1744 and 1755. ‘Fire and Candle’ as categorised by Isabella, came to £13 02s 00d for one week in May 1745, £5 17s 2d for one week in October 1748 and £5 2s 3d for one week in July 1753. Clearly the times of year and special occasions had a marked affect upon the costs of heating and lighting this particular country house.
In the country house, like any home, the tallow candle had to be carefully stored as they were apt to rot. The housekeeper would have had this responsibility as she had access to the main dry store. She might have had a large box
as well as free standing cupboards and cabinets to keep a range of candles in. In other instances rooms may have had cylindrical tin boxes which were hung high on the wall – to keep the rats out – for the storage of tallow candles. Moreover, in her book of housekeeping, Susanna Whatman noted that the first thing a housekeeper should teach a new servant was to carry her candle upright, since it was no good wasting taxed consumables when the wax stub could be reused in lighting fires. Such careful action also stopped hot wax dripping to the carpets and floor boards.
From the second half of the eighteenth century, and with the rise of the whaling industry, a new kind of wax candle began to appear on the London market – the spermaceti candle. These were the best candles, and were initially more expensive than beeswax candles. The wax and spermaceti candles would have been used by the family, but probably reserved for special occasions. In the first half of the nineteenth century Elizabeth, Lady Breadalbane instructed her servants that, ‘all pieces of spermaceti candles to be collected by the under Butler and given over to the Housekeeper at least once a fortnight for the lanterns and the lighting of fires.’ The expense of these candles also dictated their recyclable qualities.
The candle tax was abolished in 1831, the beginning of the decade which also marked another key event in the history of lighting – the invention of the friction match. Previously, the method of striking a light involved the ignition of tinder with a sharp flint struck against another metal. Tinder was extremely dry linen or flax and other highly inflammable materials kept in special boxes at the hearthside or in designated stores again accessed by the housekeeper, butler or footmen.
Most rooms would have been lit by portable candlesticks and holders, which is why many rooms in country houses have not been adapted for ceiling lighting. This form of portable light was perpetuated well into the days of gas and electric lighting in many homes. Types of candlestick however were signifiers of wealth, and the materials they were made from covered a vast spectrum including cheap metals, ceramics, silver, a variety of woods, marble and glass.
In the more public spaces and state apartments the permanent fixtures for candle lighting are the chandeliers, sconces, tourchieres and girandoles. The word ‘chandelier’ comes from the French ‘chandelles’ (tallow candles) and was understood from the fifteenth century, but became more common at the end of the seventeenth century. In the country house inventory a chandelier as we understand it may be written as ‘branches’, or ‘hanging candlesticks’. Sconce also has origins in French and has been understood to mean the cover provided by the attachment fixing the candle socket or holder to the wall. Tourchiere is again of French origin and simply means torch and more specifically the apparatus providing upward lighting. The origin of the word girandole seems more charming in comparison and comes from the French (as a derivative of the Italian verb girare ‘to turn’ and ‘girandola’ a rotating firework similar to the UK Catherine Wheel); the setting of candle sockets on a girandole, often backed by a mirror displays a spiralling pattern and thus a turning sparkle of light.
If the rushlight and sparing use of tallow represented the servants’ domain then so too were there degrees of opulance above stairs. Brass chandeliers were being used from the fifteenth century. Gilded wood and glass chandeliers were making an appearance by the first half of the eighteenth century, but the most extravagant and awesome of chandeliers were those of silver or crystal. Of course cleaning these would be considered both a tremendous and perilous job by the housemaids and a tense time for the upper servant. At twentieth-century Brodsworth Hall, Sylvia Grant-Dalton would announce when it was time to clean the glass crystals of the drawing room chandeliers ‘when they’d lost their glitter’, a phrase which would send shivers of apprehension throughout the servant hierarchy.
The colour of the room also mattered and may explain why whites and cool colours were preferable (as well as fashionable) before the 1800s and the introduction of gas and electricity. Isaac Ware noted in 1746 that a room ‘which if wainscoted [panelled] will take six candles to light it, will in stucco [plastered] require eight or if hung [papered] ten’ (Complete Body or Architecture). The decorative finishes were crucial in recognising the potential of lighting the space. The dark pannelling we see today is the result of age – or the nineteenth-century romantic disposition, since these woods would have been fairly pale and would have offered a warm glow next to candle light. The depth of colour produced by wallpapers in the large country house merely reinforced the conspicuous consumption of its owner. Its matt finish or dark flocking required extra candles, but the sparkle would have been tremendous and deliberately impressive for any visitor.
Today, candles are a different kind of necessity becoming our main source of light when the electricity sub-station fails or a mains fuse has blown. Otherwise they help set a specific mood with their scented qualities or romantic glow. But we are no longer governed by sunrise and sunset hours, so our stash of tealights and stubby candles remain tucked away in boxes with torches and spare batteries, or stored lovingly in the bathroom or dining room for intimate or familiar scenarios. Providing light for the home outside the hours of daylight was a cautious process before gas and powerful electric lighting. It recalls the comments of actors in period dramas when they complain about the restriction of dress compared to their modern-day clothing. When the electricity does blow, it’s hard work especially without a proper candleholder (an old wine bottle might have to suffice in most situations), and ensuring wax doesn’t spill on the floor normally means waxy fingertips. Yet, it’s the movement from room to room which proves unappealing without a working light switch. The skills and levels of ingenuity we’ve lost to electric power are numerous, and understanding the gratitude felt towards a single flame is forgotten. In the country house, the necessity of candlelight for the early riser to the opulence of several burning and glistening candles suggests great variety of function, and yet a single flame offered any individual some peace of mind.
Jacqueline Fearn, Domestic Bygones. Shire Publications (2nd edition 1999).
Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House (1978)
Christina Hardyment, Home Comfort: A History of Domestic Arrangements (1992)
Pamela Sambrook, The Country House Servant (1999)
John Vince, The Country House: How it Worked (1991)
Merlin Waterson, The Servants’ Hall: A Domestic History of Erdigg (1980)
Susanna Whatman, The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman. (1776) Introduced by Christina Hardyment. The National Trust (1997).
Temple Newsam Country House Studies, number 4, (text by Anthony Wells-Cole), Country House Lighting (1992)
Achieving the candle-lit look in the present day http://ntenvironmentalwork.net/2011/11/01/led-candle-bulbs-measure-a-hundred-times-cut-only-once/
The National Trust, The Argory, County Armagh and the history of lighting the country house http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-the__argory_lighting__list.pdf (2010).
Lighting the American home by candlelight http://www.candlecomfort.com/historyofcandles.html
The Geffrye Museum, London. http://www.geffrye-museum.org.uk/collections/thematics/
Country Life article on the history of domestic lighting http://www.countrylife.co.uk/property/article/528152/From-fish-oil-to-chandeliers-early-domestic-lighting.html
Lighting the Victorian home, with attention on Linley Sambourne House in London http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/lighting/lighting.htm
Fantastic blog on the practicalities of domestic routine. This post relates to rushlights or dip candles http://www.oldandinteresting.com/rushlights.aspx