Artificial Sunshine:
A Social History of Domestic Lighting

Maureen Dillon

The National Trust 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
Artificial Sunshine presents a history of domestic lighting in Britain, looking in turn at fire and firelight, rushlights and tallow candles, wax candles, and lighting by oil, gas, and electricity. It covers the development of lighting technologies, the entrepreneurs and economics behind those, and the social context of lighting in different households.

Some excerpts will give a feel for the material covered.

"For centuries the use of beeswax candles remained the prerogative of the Church, the Crown and the nobility. ... The royal household employed its own wax chandlers and although independent workers in this craft are thought to have emerged in the thirteenth century, it was not until 1484 that the Wax Chandlers of the City of London were granted a Royal Charter by Richard III."
"A development of c.1773 that advanced oil technology was the introduction by Leger of a flat wick of woven cotton that improved combustion and produced a larger flame. The flat wick was subsequently used to good effect with the 'air burner' lamp that was first patented in France in 1783 by Ami Argand. ... The burner comprised a wide, cylindrical woven wick held between two concentric metal tubes. This increased air supply to the wick which was drawn up the middle tube and, together with the airflow on the outside of the wick, allowed for full aeration of the flame. Combustion and efficiency were further increased by the addition of a glass chimney. In terms of light-output the lamp had no rivals as it claimed to produce illumination equal to that of ten wax candles, 10 c.p."
"electric lighting remained a luxury for many years, and a house lit by electricity indicated prosperity and progressiveness. The non-inflammable nature of electric lighting provided unprecedented opportunities for decorative effects, while its combination of novelty, luxury and modernity was emphasised through the use of expensive and occasionally frivolous gadgets."

At the end of the nineteenth century, nearly all the forms of lighting covered were in use in different settings.

"It was rare for the poor to waste light, although in the homes of the 'respectable' working classes a shaded lamp may have been amongst the prized possession in the parlour or 'front' room. For very poor city or country dwellers, abundant light was still beyond the means of many, even at the end of the nineteenth century. Rural labourers like the fenmen of Wicken ... were no doubt glad of the light provided by their humble oil lamps and candlesticks. When money was tight, there was always the light from the turves burning in large open fireplaces. Others, through choice or financial considerations, continued with candle and oil lighting into the twentieth century"

Dillon's account tails off in the early 20th century, with the victory of electric lighting over gas, and ends by 1948, with the nationalisation of the British electricity supply industry. She doesn't venture at all into modern innovations in electric lighting such as fluorescents and LEDs.

There's a fair bit of detail about individual items and the locations in which they can be found, which only those in Britain with a serious attraction to light fittings are likely to appreciate.

"Early pricket candlesticks in brass, bronze, silver, and carved and gilded wood can often be found in family chapels, as at Belton House, Ightham Mote and Hardwick Hall. Some of the oldest were rescued by Charles Paget Wade, and form part of his Snowshill collection. In a number of other houses, for example Antony, early candlesticks have been converted into electric table lamps."

Many of these items are made more accessible, however, through colour photographs, which take up about half of Artificial Sunshine. These depict candle holders, lamps, and other lighting implements, but also their settings in rooms and houses, and some aspects of their use. Dillon also makes good use of quotes from contemporary publications, drawing on memoirs and diaries, manuals and trade journals, and a range of other sources.

Artificial Sunshine draws heavily on National Trust houses and their contents, but that's not much of limitation given the number and variety of their properties. The more fundamental constraint is, as Dillon acknowledges, that some kinds of items are much more likely to survive than others. She also covers only Britain, with no attempt at international comparisons.

There is more than enough in Artificial Sunshine as it is, however. Anyone curious about the history of technology or British social history should find much to enjoy in it, even if they have no special interest in lighting.

December 2008

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%T Artificial Sunshine
%S A Social History of Domestic Lighting
%A Dillon, Maureen
%I The National Trust
%D 2002
%O hardcover, colour photographs, notes, index
%G ISBN 0707802881
%P 224pp