Monday, September 28, 2020

Lighting the Way


We take much for granted in our modern age. Today, for example, lighting is an expected reality. Only when the electrical power goes down do we start looking for a backup plan to see at night. Certainly, the mid-nineteenth century was a much darker place than today. However, people of that era, too, looked for lighting alternatives to continue to work and play long after the sun set.

From the 1700s into the early 1800s, one of the most popular forms of lighting came from whale oil. Seafaring expeditions, often originating from New England states and venturing around South America to the whaling grounds of the Pacific Ocean could last several years at a time. Rendering whale fat produced the oil substance that illuminated many homes, businesses, and some urban streets. Another common lighting source came from distilled turpentine, called camphene. Produced largely from pine tree forest plantations in the South, and often utilizing enslaved labor, camphene ended up serving various lighting needs across the United States. Yet another method of illumination came through gas. By burning bituminous coal in a controlled environment, it emitted gas. Routed to homes, businesses, and street lamps through pipes and valves, gas users paid a service subscription. Virginia cities such as Petersburg, Richmond, and Alexandria, all had gas lighting available before the Civil War to those who could afford it.

The nineteenth century also saw innovations in making fire. Matches, often known then by a brand name (Lucifers), came from dipping wood sticks into a mixture of phosphorus and other flammable ingredients. Now, instead of kindling a fire from the sparks of flint and steel, striking a match could produce an instant usable flame.

Lighting was a challenge for Civil War soldiers. The most common artificial light for individual use came from candles. Made from a variety of substances, mid-nineteenth century candles created enough light for nighttime tasks and were easy to carry. Natural substances such as beef tallow, swine lard, whale oil (spermaceti), and beeswax, as well with chemical processes (stearin), and refined ingredients such as paraffin, converted those materials into light. Manufactured by individuals hand-dipping, cottage industries through molds, and factories with steam presses, candles poured into the marketplace by the millions. Civil War army regulations even stipulated that along with their food rations, soldiers were to receive a certain allotment of candles per company. Many a letter to the home front from the front lines—or in the opposite direction—came after the day’s work or fighting was complete and with the aid of the simple candle.

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