The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 17, 1999


Treasures from Carlisle's Past: "To Light Their Nights"

Today it is difficult to imagine life without electricity. When ice storms cause power outages, we bring out our battery operated flashlights and lanterns, perhaps fire up a gas-powered generator and light whatever candles we have on hand to illuminate our homes. We might even say the low light provides a certain romantic ambience, but are usually quite pleased to have the brilliance of electric light return.

Yet, until 1928 many, if not most, homes in Carlisle did not have electricity. That year, the February 13 Town Meeting voted to extend electric light to all town streets. Since 1911, the town, working with the Edison Electric Illumination Company, had provided electric street lamps and electric lines only in the center and along major streets.

How did 19th-century Carlisleans light their homes? The historical collections of both the town and Historical Society contain examples of the variety of lighting devices available.

Candles were the most basic and widespread source of light, well into the mid-1800s. In a small agricultural community like Carlisle, candles would have remained the mainstay of home lighting even after the introduction of oil and kerosene lamps. Candles might be purchased, but many households made their own, either by dipping, molding or rolling them. As late as 1869 the Beecher sisters wrote specific instructions for candle-making in their housekeeping classic, The American Woman's Home. A bunch of wooden sticks, identified as "candle dips" survive in the town collection. Perhaps they assisted an early Carlisle housewife in producing numbers, such as recorded in one diary, of 200 candles dipped in one day!

Dipping candles was not only a hot and tedious process, it yielded irregular candles which affected the burning quality. Molded candles were prized for their uniformity. Those fortunate enough to own tin candle molds might display them prominently with other tin ware. They would generously lend them to neighbors. Several Carlisle families owned such molds into which a wick would be inserted, then wax poured, forming a candle "upside-down." There are examples of molds for making three, four and twelve candles in the collections. Rolled candles were usually made of beeswax and were highly prized and infrequently used.

Our modern candles differ greatly from those used in earlier times. Animal fat (tallow) was the most common ingredient. It not only smoked, but had an unpleasant odor. Candles made from the tiny bayberries were favored for their fragrance, while those of beeswax and later spermaceti were the most prized. Spermaceti (the wax from the head of a sperm whale) burned the brightest, giving off three times more light than other types.

Burning candles required care and attention. Until the first "self-consuming" wick was invented in 1825, candle wicks needed trimming in twenty minute intervals. Special scissor-like tools, called "snuffers," were designed to perform this task to reduce smoking and dripping. Of the four examples in the Carlisle collections, two also have accompanying decorative trays to set underneath them.

The specific reason light was needed determined the style of candle holder used. So-called "chamber sticks" were used to light one's way from the parlor to the bed-chamber. They were often low, with a wide saucer-like base and handle. A room might be lit by only one or two candles to conserve this precious resource. Candlesticks could be plain or fancy, made of wood, brass, silver, pewter or tin. Two practical 18

Pierced tin lanterns provided protection against the wind for those carrying light abroad at night. Later, glass globes afforded the same protection and gave better light. One specific type was the "skaters lamp," which had a chain and ring attached which a skater could slip on his or her finger.

Our ingenious ancestors extended the dim light of candles in a variety of ways. Metal sconces, mirrors, highly polished woods and shiny fabrics all reflected light, in household interiors.

Liquid fuels became the source for light during the late 18

The collections do contain an interesting alcohol-burning lamp. Both alcohol and gasoline were used as lighting fuels, providing lamps that were quite literally bombs waiting to explode.

That illumination is still measured in "candlefeet" is no surprise. Today, we have aromatic and decorative candles to enhance our homes and delicate tapers for special table settings and events. The historical "treasures" from years past tell of a pragmatic dependency on candles and other light sources. In their own time they were valued for their ability to light the home and cheer the hearts of those gathered within.

Stephanie Upton is.a member of the Carlisle Historical Society. Currently, she is an independent museum professional.

1999 The Carlisle Mosquito