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Lighting in the Victorian home

Candles

Three types of candle were commonly used at the start of the period; tallow, spermaceti and beeswax. Tallow candles made from animal fat in moulds were the cheapest but they burnt with a smoky flame which produced progressively less and less light - and they stank. Spermaceti wax, made from whale oil, was harder than either beeswax or tallow and was least likely to soften in hot weather. Improvements in the design of the wicks shortly before the Victorian period commenced had eliminated guttering, and the plaited wicks introduced in the 1820s curled out of the flame as they burnt, eliminating the need for constant trimming which plagued earlier candles. By the end of the century the modern paraffin wax candle was the most commonly used, being cheap, odourless and reliable.

Chandeliers, sconces and candelabra varied from their Georgian predecessors in style only, although shades became popular in the taste for sumptuous decoration and richness in the late 19th century. The most significant technological improvements affected various lamps fitted with candles, reflectors and lenses, often with sophisticated spring-loaded mechanisms for ensuring that the flame remained at the same height relative to the lens or shade, forcing the candle to rise as it burnt.

Candlelight was used for most ordinary activities throughout the Victorian period, from dining and playing cards to cooking, particularly in areas where there was no gas, until finally eclipsed by electric light. Photographs of interiors taken by the architectural photographer H Bedford Lemere between 1890 and 1910 (reproduced in The Opulent Eye - see Recommended Reading) show that in the 1890s fashionable hotels and homes were still being lit by candlelight and oil lamps. In the drawing rooms and dining rooms of the wealthy, candelabra were often positioned on the mantlepiece in front of a pier glass mirror, sconces were also common and on the tables there were oil lamps, candlesticks and candelabra, often in addition to gasoliers above. In most cases the candles had shades, some with frills and tassels, others plain, perhaps made of paper. In the photographs taken in the early 20th century, many of the candle fittings seen were empty. The frills and tassels had gone, and the interiors were cool and uncluttered by comparison. Many of the electric light fittings shown were converted chandeliers and sconces with light bulbs protruding from imitation candles, illustrating a nostalgia for the candle which remains as strong today.

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