History of Lighting

An Appreciation of Early Lighting

The following concise history may not be of interest to all; however, its content has been carefully researched and chosen to give an insight into the fascinating historic story of lighting. The few extra minutes of time spent will hopefully increase your appreciation of lighting down through the centuries.

For the first 3,000 years of recorded civilization, the ancient lighting of China, Persia, and Mesopotamia changed little. Aside from the torch, the earliest known means of artificial lighting was a wrought iron cresset or fire basket in which pine knots and other resinous hard woods were burned. From the time of the pyramids we also have evidence of a variety of grease lamps. These were shallow wrought iron or earthenware bowls with a hanger at one end and a lip at the other end, into which was placed a crude wick. Fueled with animal fat or fish oil, they were inefficient and gave off a foul odor. Such devices were always hung near the fireplace in hopes of ridding the house of its evil smelling scent.

Archeological evidence shows that prehistoric man had some of the same types of lighting devices that prevailed until the 18th century. A device found in France dating back 20,000 years was an indented rock with hardened grease and a vegetable fiber still inside.

Generally, lighting can be divided into four periods; Primitive, Classical, Medieval and Invention. Primitive covers the flaming torch and simple lamps with wicks. Cave art at La Moute, France, shows pear shaped fixtures with the engraved head and horns of the ibex. French peasants used this same type of fixture up until 1915.

Classical lighting was developed mostly in Greece and Rome. In these countries, clay was used by the poorer people and bronze by the wealthy. They never did discover the principle of combustion, so smoke and odor were present any time lamps were used.

In Medieval times, metalwork lamps were found in the Dark Ages, during the Crusades and on into the Renaissance. The Invention age of lighting overlaps with the Medieval, starting with Leonardo Da Vinci in 1490. He was the first to enclose the flame within a glass chimney which in turn was fitted into a water-filled glass globe. This combination eliminated much of the flicker problem of earlier lamps and improved its operation in drafty areas. In 1879 Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light and electricity was born.


Candles, in the crudest sense, first appeared in the Roman era. The true candle, in approximately its present form, is about one thousand years old. Tallow and beeswax were used principally in their manufacture, but they were very expensive and considered a costly luxury. Bayberries were another plentiful and natural source of candle wax in the colonies and was highly prized for their bright, even flame and fragrant odor when extinguished. These, too, were costly, as it takes upwards of 15 pounds of berries to make one pound of wax. Spermaceti candles, aristocrats of the candle family, were made from a waxy solid found in the head of the sperm whale and were first introduced in 1750. Of interest, one "candle-power" is the measurement of artificial light given off by one pure spermaceti candle weighing one-sixth of a pound burning at the rate of 120 grains per hour.

Early Gothic candlesticks were designed simply with a stem and knop. William and Mary designs were more elaborate with polygonal and baluster bases. Queen Anne candlesticks were delicate with octagonal stems and square bases. Georgian styles had baluster stems and octagonal bases. With Oriental influence, seated figures, flowers and animals started adorning the candlesticks and glass candlesticks, such as those from Waterford, were highly prized. By the 18th century, candlesticks became tiered and many lights were added at festive occasions. Gradually, even pieces of furniture made by Chippendale and Sheraton would have holders for candles built in. The elaborate candelabra of early 18th century Europe, themselves rooted in ancient designs of the Near and Far East, were the inspiration, to a great extent, for early American lighting. The English influence was evident in Virginia, New England, New Jersey and Pennsylvania; Spanish in Florida, and French in Louisiana.

Lighting Fixtures

The history of lighting in Europe and America is a progression from torch to candlesticks to lanterns to elegant sconces and candelabras. In Italy, climate affected progress - since one goes to bed and gets up with the sun - there was little motivation for artificial lighting. Gradually, over time, Rome did produce elegant bronze tripod lights and candelabras. Candlesticks with spikes and chandeliers with coronas and loops were seen, as well as figurines holding torches.

In England, the early Anglo-Saxons were famous metal workers. By the 17th century, torch holders, taper holders, candlesticks, hanging fixtures, lanterns and limoges were all much in vogue. The 18th century also saw the classical revival of William and Mary, Queen Anne, Georgian, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheriden designs. Materials such as porcelain, pottery, glass, and Waterford were all becoming more and more plentiful. In Spain, wrought iron hanging lamps and lanterns, either fully encased or glassless, were being developed and elaborate tassels adorned both fabric and metal lamps.

In France the earliest fixtures were candils or coronas which were small and simple in design. Lights were often put on wheels, and crowns of lights in wood, bronze, copper, silver, ivory or rock crystal were created. In the 13th century, enamel candlesticks which burned perfume appeared and chandeliers de applique of the 14th century were candle brackets for walls. By the 15th and 16th centuries, lights were part of the decor in many rooms. Highly stylized wall sconces with oval convex mirrors were seen, as well as elaborate brass and crystal pieces. By the 18th century, the neoclassical style of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were seen in elegant gold and silver candelabras with figures and animals. Dresden porcelain flowers and ribbons were frequently appliqued on sconces and lanterns.

While the Italian and Spanish fixtures of the 18th century were at their zenith in Europe, faint traces of their influence began to appear in America, where designs were born of necessity and characterized by variety and ingenuity - two American traits. In the turnings of early American church and meetinghouse chandeliers may be found the composite, baluster stem of the classic vases and urns of the Italian Renaissance. Lanterns whose sides taper sharply towards the bottom show this same influence. The first attempts of the American craftsmen to emulate such high style resulted in exaggerated and often disproportionate examples. His ignorance gave birth to a truly staggering variety of shapes such as the oval acorn, egg, pineapple, lemon, drum bulb, bell spike and tulip. Ingenuity rather than art, clever adaptation rather than originality, marked colonial lighting. Inspired by European excellence, it was often naive and in complete ignorance of classical art forms and motifs; but possessed immense charm and folk art quality. Chandeliers with any artistic pretension were always imported.

Because American craftsman was severely limited by available materials, tools and formal training, lighting became a "thing to fit the need". Early lanterns were purely utilitarian, often square and plain in design, with nothing more than simple hoops and crossbeams; variants of the Continental style. Sconces made with simple wall brackets did not exist much before the early 18th century. Bewildering in their numbers, these clever contrivances, often found in pairs, were yet another example of American inventiveness. Always made for a purpose, they directed and magnified light, collected dripping wax and provided a smoke and fire shield for the burning candle. Most were primitive in design and made from tinplate or sheet iron. Some were more formal, having concave, round mirror backs and were in great vogue as early as 1730. Those made of more expensive materials are extremely rare. Brass and pewter, for example were forged into gun parts and moulded into bullets during the Revolution.

Prior to the Revolutionary War, open oil lamps and rushlights were very popular. The rushlight had a pincer attachment holding a reed that could be moved up as the reed burned out. It was a pliers-like device on a wooden or wrought iron stand. Sometimes the pith of a swamp reed was soaked in grease in a dish-like affair called a grisset and then used in the rushholder.

By the 17th and 18th centuries the best homes had silver or brass candlesticks, sconces and lanterns. Most early lights were made of iron, then tin, and later, pewter, brass and earthenware. Hooplights with candle sockets hung from the ceiling, and floor candlesticks were common. The unique sparking or courting lamp burned dimly for only a short time and was frequently used in conjunction with wall-hanging chamber lamps. Candlesticks in silver were used in the parlor and dining room with brass throughout the remainder of the house. Pewter or tin was used in the kitchen and by the servants.

One of the more famous lamps from early America was the "Betty" lamp (from the French petit butto, German besser or Old English bete). They were early wick lamps and were made from iron found in the colonies. These lamps were either triangular or pear shaped, burned mineral oil, and had curved hanging handles. They were used in the U.S. until 1850.

Over the years, several factors, both at home and abroad, profoundly influenced the direction lighting was to take. In 1750, in Quincy, MA, a company began the manufacture of glass for the first time in this country. Although the primitive forms of lighting previously discussed remained in widespread use as late as the Civil War, the advent of glass signaled a truly artistic evolvement. In 1784, Ami Argand invented, in Europe, a lamp which radically altered and improved lighting forever. It had a font or reservoir which dispensed oil to a flat circular wick where it burned on both the inner and outer surfaces. As air rose up through the center, an abundant supply of oxygen was provided that consumed most of the carbon while providing a strong bright light with no smoke and little flicker. In the same year (1784) a Frenchman, one Zuinquet, pirated Argand's invention and added a glass chimney, creating a draft, thus greatly intensifying the amount of artificial light.

Time or clock lamps, which told the time by the level of oil used, became popular for a time. Priest's lamps had vertical wick tubes for night visitations. Canting lamps were so designed as to use up the last drop of oil. And lens lamps were made so that water would cause the light to focus on a particular area for reading.

As glass became more available, glass lamps gained in popularity. Hob nail and hob nail patterns were used. Other popular shapes included the mushroom, loop with heart design, and Sandwich lamps. Cut crystal pendants were often used on sconces, candlesticks, and chandeliers. The Tumbler lamp was used by physicians and invalids since it was better for heating water at night.

Hanging lamps had been used since the Renaissance. Often vase-shaped or with rounded bellies, they were made of carved wood, brass or silver. They were the link between lamp and chandelier.

Colonial chandeliers were often fitted with sockets for between five and 20 candles. The earliest chandeliers were usually flat wheels with spikes. Later, cross pieces were added and hoods were used for reflection. The centers would be of wood and the suspension of iron rod or chain. Crinkle cups with candle insets were often seen. Gradually, decoration found its way to the chandelier, with leaves in iron or wood and later with flowers in glass. 19th century chandeliers had several tiers of lights attached to the stem or corona, and these lights began to take the place of lanterns in halls, passageways, and lobbies. Brass and glass became very popular materials for chandeliers.


In the early days, the colonists went to bed with the setting sun or made do with fire light. One early improvement was the lantern, or "lanthorne" as it was known 200 years ago. Today lanterns mounted outside the home are both decorative and functional. They provide accent and ambient lighting for visitors who need to safely reach your door.

Lanterns are divided into two groups, portable and fixed. The latter are usually identified by their location of use, i.e. ships lanterns, street lanterns, post lanterns, carriage lamps, hall lanterns, etc. Portable types are classified by their materials shape or purpose. These include pierced, horn, bullseye, wooden, tin or globe lanterns.

Legend has it that a windowless, pierced lantern was used to signal Paul Revere from the belfry of the Old North Church of the arrival of the British, a noble task for an ignoble lantern. We can be sure that such a lighting device could never have been seen from across the Charles River. Nevertheless these pierced lanterns are named after the famous patriot and the legend persists.

Streets in most America cities 200 years ago were lighted primarily by reflections from doorway lanterns. Few townships had established provisions for public street lighting. Boston was probably the first. In the early 1700's cressets or iron baskets hung from poles with pine knots as fuel and were used to light busy intersections. These were tended by night watchmen.

Some towns passed laws making it mandatory for every sixth house to have a post lantern or a torch to provide the required illumination.

By the 1770's the city of Boston had large numbers of post lanterns of English manufacture lighting its streets. Whale oil was the fuel of choice. By 1751, Philadelphia's streets were also lighted, thanks to Benjamin Franklin. Ever resourceful, it was he who discovered that two wick tubes burning side by side, a certain distance apart gave more light than two separate burners. Different fluids were also experimented with. One such fuel was camphene. It was a combination of turpentine and alcohol and burned very brightly, but was extremely dangerous.

The gas light era was introduced in this country in about 1800, with London switching to gas in 1807. The beautiful Westminster Bridge was lighted by gas in 1813; Paris streets in 1818. Several significant discoveries increased the brilliance of the gas light; pinching the end of the gas tube to a fan shape, mixing air with the gas before the point at which it was lit, and finally, surrounding the flame with a mantle of metallic oxide cloth until it glowed brighter than the flame, were all important innovations in the quest for more light.

Religious Fixtures

The menorah and Hanukkah lamps are some of the oldest remnants of lighting devices still in wide use today. The Menorah, described in the Bible, is made of gold with six branches and a center shaft. It is used only in the synagogue, not the home. The Hanukkah lamp, used in the home, is of similar design. It is used to celebrate the Festival of Lights for eight days, and therefore has eight lamps with one for the server.



Some of the early accessories for light fixtures found in the home included candle rods, candle molds, snuffers, candle boxes, save-alls, tinder boxes, matches, oil filters, spill holders, and wick picks. For safety reasons a snuffer was used rather than blowing out the candles, since the wicks were often long. Sulphur matches came into use in 1827.

Miniature or night lamps are replicas of oil lamps and were usually less than 12 inches high. They were made of glass and were first produced in Sandwich, England. Their popularity grew as regular lamps came into homes. Though not recorded, most researchers believe they may have been used as night lights in sick rooms, children's rooms, or in a child's playhouse.

As one can see, lighting and light fixtures have a long and intriguing history. Through the ages man has hungered for new and better ways to light up the night. Just as full-size houses need light to brighten every room, so do dollhouses need this added magic. When one compares a lit dollhouse to an unlighted one, the differences are dramatic. Everything in the house is enhanced by the electrified table lamps, chandeliers, and ceiling fixtures glowing throughout. It is an investment truly worth the effort spent.