The Light Bill


At one time,  almost all human activity took place during daylight hours. For the lower classes, extra light at night was just not affordable. The height of middle class illuminatory luxury was having more than one candle burning at the same time. Beeswax candles were excellent, but too costly for anyone but the upper crust and perhaps a few beekeepers. Tallow tapers were much cheaper, but since tallow is made up of “any old” fat, they made your house smell like a that roasting pan you once forgot and left in your oven for two weeks.  They were also sooty, and required frequent wick trimming.  In Eastern North America, there was bayberry wax, one of finest natural candle materials ever. But bayberry candle production is incredibly labor-intensive, and you need acres and acres of bayberry ground to make even a modest number of tapers.

Three chairs,two tapers,and one centerpiece.

The argand lamp, or quinquet, with its glass chimney, circular wick and raised oil reservoir, was a big breakthrough. Bibliomaniac Tom Jefferson imported quinquets from France, for his nighttime reading. Later on, in the big cities, piped gas came in, but was mainly used  in wealthier neighborhoods, and for  street lighting. Gaslight in the home makes for an awful lot of hot exhaust. Ceilings used to be ten and twelve feet high for a reason. Those fumes had to go somewhere.

The rise of whaling in the 18th and 19th centuries made whale oil available. Whale oil became the premium lamp oil. That oil was so successful that the whales were nearly exterminated. With the advent of the petroleum industry in the mid-nineteenth century, kerosene soon lit the scene.  Also known as rock oil or paraffin, the new fuel was an improvement, but still filled a house with fumes.

Then came the Wizard of Menlo Park. Thomas Edison. His ruthless genius gave rise to electric power generation, distribution, and the electric light. In the century since then, light has taken over the planet. We have gone from diurnally rhythmic life to a world of “24/7” brilliance. There are places where at night you can’t see the stars anymore. The dark side of the Earth is no longer lit only by phasing moonlight. Now, when seen from satellite, the far side is now a much-brightened hemisphere, one laced by necklaces and jewels of light. Even the nighttime oceans are studded with the lights of fishing factory ships and their attendant smaller craft.

When I was a boy, almost everyone still kept kerosene lanterns handy. Power outages were to be expected. Storms and hurricanes could cut off power for days. Many summer places were lit with kerosene and aladdin lamps only. Washing lamp chimneys was a weekly, if not a daily chore. Tending the fragile and temperamental mantles of the Aladdin lamp was a common skill.  If you’re old enough, you remember the ancient hand cranked kerosene pump in the back room of  Alley’s Store in West Tisbury. Old Albion (Beanie) Alley called kerosene “Lamp Wine.” The kerosene can in my storage shed is so labeled, in his honor.

Electric light! We tend to take  electric lights, and our era’s conquest of darkness, for granted. The children certainly do. They turn lights on wherever they go, and the thought of turning them off when they’re not needed never seems to enter their heads. Even with electricity over twenty-five cents a kilowatt-hour,  neither the expense nor the waste seem to register. Leave a hundred watt bulb on all day and it’ll cost you over fifty cents on your NSTAR bill.  Never mind all the fossil fuel used to make that light. Ay!

In the old days, our parents’ and grandparents’ days, the link between electricity and illumination was still so close that when the power bill came, they didn’t call it the power bill, or the electric bill. They called it the “light bill”.

Now at night we stay happily ensconced in our brilliant homes. “Ensconced” comes from sconce, which is a candle holder, by the way. Have you ever seen those little circular devices on candlesticks, made of glass or metal, that catch wax drippings? The French, bless their wordy hearts, came up with a name for them, in the early 1850’s.

The word is “bobeche”.


4 responses to “The Light Bill

  1. Under sail, where every unit of energy, water and food must be transported or created we are very careful about lights. We normally use Kerosene, it has a much softer and pleasant light and can take the chill of a small cabin. Nowadays we have “lamp oil” aka kerosene with fragrance added and I wonder if in days gone by they added fragrance to minimize the unpleasant Kero smell???

  2. Not in “my” days gone by was fragrance added. Different grades of kero had more and less stink, so if you were burning in lamps, as opposed to stoves, you chose the least-stinky product you could find. Kero is almost a boutique item now.

  3. Joni Mitchell’s line “. . . and the stars paid a light bill” is now running through my head.

    Maybe it’s a New England thing, but I could no more leave the lights on when I leave a room (for more than a moment) than I could leave the water running while I’m brushing my teeth. As I fall asleep, though, there must be a couple dozen glowing dots of light seeing me off, red, blue, yellow, green. It’s hard to remember what a dark room feels like.

  4. There hang on our walls a number of sconces, some with bobeches. Sometimes we turn off all the electric lights and just enjoy the candle light. After the 10/2011 storm, we enjoyed those candles for several days.

    And perhaps you can help me with this. I have seen on the ceilings of a number of older homes, ornate circular metal plates. Were these to keep the chandeliers from burning the ceilings, or to make cleaning soot easier?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s