16th and 17th Century Lighting, parts 1 and 2
by David Vavreck
Introduction and Bylaws
Scottish Culture
Music and Dance
Military Life
Bibliography, Sources
and Library Materials

There were various forms of lighting available to the common people in this period. This two-part article examines both interior and exterior lighting, primarily that of the lower class majority. Lighting information apart from lanterns is covered below; the section on lanterns will follow next month.

The most common light source in the home was that of the cook fire which was generally kept burning at all times. In most of western Europe, the hearth fire was fueled by wood. In Scotland and Ireland, however, peat was commonly used. About two weeks of work in the summer would provide enough peat blocks for the year, which surely compares favorably to how many hours we work per year to pay our light and heat bills.

In addition, there were several other forms of supplemental lighting that were common in the home – rushlights, cruises, and betty lamps, and particularly in Scotland, fir candles.

Rushlights were very commonly used throughout western Europe. Rushes were gathered and dried. Generally, the outer layer was stripped down to the pithy core. The rushes would then be dipped in fat, tallow, or "salet oyle" (i.e. olive oil - Caspell p 171). Allowed to harden up, they would either be put in a pincer-like device with a counter weight (a "rush nips") or stood up in a container designed to prevent a fire starting. A split stick could also be used to hold the burning rush. Sometimes, a rushlight would have a candle holder as a counterweight for use on special occasions such as a visit from somebody important. Rushes were burned at an angle; they burn too quickly if horizontal, but tend to be smoky and go out if vertical. They are likely the origin of the expression "burning the candle at both ends". A "good rush", 2' 4 1/2", burned for 57 minutes (Robins p 14). They do not put put a lot of light, but they have the advantage over candles that they were potentially free. A few hours gathering the rushes, and a few days processing them after they dried, and saving fat at slaughter time or the drippings from your cook fire were all that were required. In fact, one could make a little spare change by providing rushlights to others.

The following devices all use wicks, which were made of rushes, twisted hemp, flax, or scraps of rag. Cotton wicks seem not to have come about until the mid 18th c and plaited wicks (which are self-snuffing) were not invented until 1825 (Robins p 20). If the wick was longer than about a 1/4', it was snuffed - snuff in this usage means to trim, not to extinguish; a too-long wick burned inefficiently, making more smoke and less light. In a study done in 1838, it was shown that an untrimmed candle burned twice as fast, but only created 1/7th the light of a properly trimmed candle (Robins p 10). Trimming was necessary several times per hour. The implement used to trim the wick, a candle snuffer, was a scissors-like device with a box attached to a blade to catch the trimming;. What are commonly called candle snuffers now were called in our period a "dousing cone", or "douter" - a contraction of to "do out" (Random House Dictionary).

Cruises are an open (i.e. not lidded) fat or oil-burning lamp usually made of iron or pottery. Any drippings from cooking would do - mutton and fish oil were preferred - though the purer the better. Whale or seal oil where also used. Often square shaped, there were lips at the corners upon which wicks were placed. The heat from a lit wick would start to melt the fat, which would then be drawn up the wick and burned. Because the fat is drawn up the wick more quickly than it burns, cruises often had a slightly larger pan hanging directly below in order to catch drippings, preventing fire or at least a mess.

Tin betty lamp. Photo by author.

Betty Lamps are a closed (lidded) oil-burning lamp. Often made of tin, a wick was fed through a spout. A pickwick was periodically used to clear off carbonization from the end of the wick, or to adjust the wick's height. The development by the Basques of industrial scale whaling from the early 16th century was largely as a result of the demand for whale oil for such lamps.

Fir Candles, made of a long thin splinter of fir, were commonly used in Scotland. Indicative of the class which used them, a fir candle holder was known in Scots English as a "puirman" (i.e. poor man - Robins p 13).

None of these produced all that much light, and could be a bit on the sooty side. And none of them hold up much to a breeze. But these are what common folk used in their houses.

The cresset or torchière was common for outdoor use, as well as for illuminating large interiors such as castles. A wrought iron cage was attached to a pole or wall. If the torch was intended to be carried - like the one we often set up in the midst of camp - the cage often pivoted to prevent the contents spilling. The fuel that was used was generally pine knots - the whole knot, not a slice of one from a board. Due to their grain and that they are so very resinous, they burned brightly for a long time. Other fuels include grease, pitch, rope soaked in oil, and the like.

And then there are candles, along with their associated candlesticks and lanterns.

Firstly, a couple things should be said about candles in our period:

Candles could be made of tallow or beeswax.

Wax candles are superior in brightness, lack of odor and soot, and they also burn much longer than tallow (an 8" wax candle 1" thick should burn about six hours, as opposed to a similar sized tallow candles lasting an hour at best). Because it took an entire honeycomb's worth of beeswax to make a single 4" candle, however, they were very expensive. Throughout the Middle Ages, wax candles were petty much only used by the Church for celebration of Mass. Priests, Monks, Nuns, etc. still used rush lights to satisfy their normal lighting needs. By our period, however, nobles, gentry, and particularly successful merchants sometimes used wax candles, at least when there was company to show off that they could afford to be so extravagant; commoners, however, still did not (the fact that the wealthy used wax candles rather than tallow prevented untold damage from centuries of soot to surviving works of art, clothing, etc.).

Incidentally, beeswax was usually bleached in our period (and still is for Catholic liturgical candles), so wax candles were nearly white, not the golden color one usually finds today. A surviving 10th century wax candle from a Christian Viking grave at Mammen, Denmark is still nearly white after being buried for a millennium (Fitzhugh and Ward, pp 76, 79).

Candles made from spermaceti (a waxy substance rendered from sperm whale oil) came about in the later 18th century. This led to the development of vast whaling fleets, and is why so many species of whale are still endangered species. The measure of brightness called candle-power is based on the light produced by spermaceti candles (Robins p 20).

Paraffin Candles were not invented until 1850. Although originally derived from coal or oil shale, paraffin is now a petroleum byproduct, being derived from crude oil. Paraffin's lack of accuracy for our period, coupled with its fundamentally evil (Big Oil) nature, should be sufficient to dissuade us from using them, if their drippiness alone isn't enough.

The reason, incidentally, that paraffin candles drip so much more than wax candles is due to chemistry; paraffin has a considerably lower melting point than wax, so it melts more quickly than it burns.

The bulk of the people, however, used tallow candles if they used candles at all. Estimates for the monied classes range from an optimistic 5% down to a fraction of 1% of the population as a whole. In other words, nearly every one else was poor, and did not use wax candles. When paraffin candles came about in the 19th century they replaced tallow, not wax.

Any cooking fat could be rendered into tallow; mutton was most popular, followed by cattle. Hog fat was generally avoided. The purer the tallow, the less soot and smoke but the more time-consuming to make, or expensive to buy. Contrary to popular belief, properly rendered tallow candles are nearly odorless. Due to their being devoid of protein, they also do not go rancid.

Domestically, candle-making was primarily a winter activity, as livestock was generally slaughtered around Martinmas (November 11) due to lack of fodder for over-wintering. Either that, or tallow candles were made for you in your own home with your own saved drippings by an itinerant tallow chandler (tallow chandlers and wax chandlers had separate guilds, and were prevented from producing each other's product).

Candles, especially tallow ones, were kept in a wooden or metal box hung on the wall in order to protect them from vermin and to prevent the candles bending over from heat. Sir Hugh Plat recommended giving tallow candles a final coat of wax in order to lessen this wilting, as well as to improve the aroma (pp 83 - 84).

Spiral candle. Photo by author.

It seems that the spiral (or so-called courting) candle, where an iron mechanism allows for adjusting the candle's height, was likely invented to prevent tallow candles wilting (Caspell p 158). I have found no documentation to suggest that there is anything to the "courting candle" story (it is often repeated that these spiral candles were turned upwards or downwards by a parent to indicate how long a daughter's suitor was welcome in the home).

Colonial Americans learned how to make bayberry candles, but it was such a labor-intensive process that they, too, were only used by the wealthy, or for special occasions (such as Christmas) - and only in America, where bayberries naturally occur.

That said, apart from candlesticks (iron, wood, or pottery for the masses, pottery, pewter or brass for the merchant class, and brass or silver for the rich), candles were also, of course, used in lanterns. An examination of these useful devices follows next month.


Caspell, John. Making Fire & Light in the home pre-1820. Antique Collectors' Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, England 1987

Fitzhugh, William W. and Ward, Elisabeth I., eds. Vikings: the North Atlantic Saga. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 2000

Plat, Sir Hugh. Delightes for Ladies. Reprint of 1627 edition by Trovillion Private Press, Herrin, IL 1939

Random House Dictionary of the English Language, second edition, unabridged. Random House, New York, 1987

Robins, F. W. Story of the Lamp (and the Candle). Oxford University Press, London 1939

Simply put, lanterns are defined as containers used to protect one's light source – be it candle or lamp - from drafts and the elements.

Lanterns could be made of many different materials including, wood, leather, and sheet iron, copper, tin, or bronze.

There are few surviving period lanterns. Objects of such day-to-day utility rarely survive to find their way into museums. One of our most fruitful sources for lanterns is art. For example, Pieter Brueghel's "The Gloomy Day" (1565 - see bibliography) has a nice depiction of one. Lanterns are also not common in the archaeological record, although with the advent of underwater archeology, this is changing – see below.

A common, relatively inexpensive type was the pierced lantern made of copper or tin, in use in Britain and Europe from the 17th c (Caspell p 239). These have no pane, but have many piercings, sometimes (but generally not until after the American Revolution) in attractive designs, to let some light out while protecting the candle from the wind (Gould and Gould p 242). They do not provide much light, but are enough to keep from falling into the well at night, which is the whole point of carrying a lantern.

A note, though, about the term - the word lantern itself was generally pronounced and spelled "lanthorn" (i.e. horn lamp) in our period. Glass - and especially glass panes - was terribly expensive until it was learned how to mass produce it in the 19th century. Horn was the most common material for lantern panes until about 1850 (Robins p 129). In fact, translucent cattle horn panes were one of the most important products made by horners throughout their existence, excelled in prominence perhaps only by hair combs. Eighteen lanthorns – and no glass lanterns - were recovered from the Mary Rose, sunk in 1545 (Hildred pp 60 – 62). A remarkably similar example has been recovered from an unidentified early-mid 15th century English (?) wreck (L'Hour and Veyrat p 293), and there are further early
16th – late 17th century examples from the Cattewater and La Trinidad Valencera wrecks (Redknap pp 76, 80).

A very rare surviving non-excavated lanthorn is that used by Guy Fawkes under Parliament on 5Nov1605 when he was caught trying to blow up Parliament while it was being formally opened by King James VI and I. In 1641, our hero's lanthorn was donated to Oxford University by Robert Brasenose, son of the justice of the peace that arrested Fawkes. This iron lanthorn has a rotating cylinder inside the main body of the lantern, which can be rotated to block the light, darkening the candle without having to blow it out.. It now resides in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (see bibliography).

The author's lanthorn

Other pane materials of which I have found record include waxed linen - one excavated Armada ship, La Trinidad Valencera, had half its lanterns with horn panes, the other half with waxed linen; again no glass lanterns were recovered (Martin pp 9 – 10). Mica, imported from Russia to England by the 16th c, and known as "Muscovy glass" (Robins p 130) or "talc" (Caspell p 227) was also used for both lantern panes and windows - the window panes in English ships' galleries were always of mica until 1702, when they began to be replaced by glass (Lavery p 176). Occasionally oiled paper was used for panes in Europe (Robins p 130). Vellum was also used in Britain from the Viking period to the 19th c (Burrows, pers. comm.) One last, albeit exotic, documented pane material is cut from the windowpane oyster, native to the Philippines; one such lantern was recovered from the 1697 wreck of the Spanish San Antonio de Tanna at Mombasa, Kenya (Sasoon p 35).

In addition to being more appropriate for 17th century reenactors, all of these glass pane alternatives give a more aesthetically pleasing glow with less glare than glass panes.

As with anything, non-period lighting should be stowed out of sight during public hours. But having period lighting will also add ambiance to our site in the evening.

Lighting tips and options for reenactors:

It is a bad idea to leave anything burning unattended. Tent fires are no fun.

Replace the panes in a glass lantern with a more appropriate material.

Use a rush lamp – our own Don Chesney makes them.

Lanthorns of very good quality are available from Sweetness and Light; see under Fisher in bibliography.

Failing that, make your own lantern using horn, waxed linen, vellum, oiled paper, or mica for the panes; given that the Black Hills are full of mica, the stuff should be fairly available around these parts.

Buy a pierced lantern. These are readily available from both the standard rendezvous suppliers such as Jas. Townsend & Son or Smoke and Fire, as well as a from numerous tin-working reenactors. Look around.

If you think you "must" have a glass-paned lamp (at several events, I have been able to read in my tent at night without even lighting a candle), try to get one with small panes; see, for example, the Barn Lantern (part #FL-3) available from Jas. Townsend & Son, Inc.; see their catalog or online at http://jas-townsend.com/product_info.php?cPath=28&products_id=44


Arnold, J. Barto III, ed. Beneath the Waters of Time: the Proceedings of the Ninth Conference on Underwater Archeology. Texas Antiquities Committee, Austin 1978

Ashmolean Museum website http://www.ashmol.ox.ac.uk/. Guy Fawkes' lanthorn is found at http://www.ashmol.ox.ac.uk/ash/objectofmonth/2002-11/history.htm. Accessed 9Feb2005.

Brueghel, Pieter. "The Gloomy Day". 1565. In the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Viewable in numerous art books or online at
http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/b/bruegel/pieter_e/painting/ Look in the lower right corner of the painting to find the lanthorn.

Burroughs, Gerry. Personal Communication dated 14Feb2005. Mr. Burrows makes rather affordable vellum lanterns in England, but unfortunately they cannot be imported to the US. See his website at http://www.gerry-burrows.co.uk/index.htm; the lantern is pictured at http://www.gerry-burrows.co.uk/lighting.htm

Caspell, John. Making Fire & Light in the home pre-1820. Antique Collectors' Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, England 1987

Fisher, Mary and Malcolm. This couple in England manufactures lanterns, rush nips, as well as a variety of other domestic reproduction goods. Sweetness and Light is the name of their business. http://www.candlemaker.org.uk/

Gould, Mr. And Mrs. G. Glen. Period Lighting Fixtures. Dodd, Mead, & Co. NY 1928

Hildred, Alex. "The material culture of the Mary Rose (1545) as a fighting vessel: the uses of wood". pp 51 - 72 in Artefacts from Wrecks: dated assemblages from the Late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution, Mark Redknap, editor. Oxbow Books, Oakville, CT 1997

Lavery, Brian. The Arming and Fitting of English Ships of War 1600 – 1815. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis 1987

L'Hour, Michel and Veyrat, Elisabeth. "A mid-15th century clinker boat off the north coast of France, the Aber Wrac'h I wreck: A preliminary report". International Journal for Nautical Archaeology 18.4 pp 285 – 298, 1989

Martin, Colin. "Ships as integrated artifacts: the archaeological potential". pp 1 - 13 in Artefacts from Wrecks: dated assemblages from the Late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Mark Redknap, editor. Oxbow Books, Oakville, CT 1997

Redknap, Mark. "Reconstructing 16th -century ship culture from a partially excavated site: the Cattewater wreck". Pp 73 – 85 in
Redknap, Mark, ed. Artefacts from Wrecks: dated assemblages from the Late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Oxbow Books, Oakville, CT 1997

Redknap, Mark, ed. Artefacts from Wrecks: dated assemblages from the Late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Oxbow Books, Oakville, CT 1997

Robins, F. W. Story of the Lamp (and the Candle). Oxford University Press, London 1939

Sasoon, Hamo. "Marine Thoughts of a Land Archeologist derived from the Mombasa Wreck excavation". Pp 33 – 37 in Beneath the Waters of Time: the Proceedings of the Ninth Conference on Underwater Archeology. J. Barto Arnold III, ed. Texas Antiquities Committee, Austin 1978