Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lighting in the Regency Era

Though gas lamps were used on a couple of London streets as early as August 1807, it was not a common light source in the Regency period. During the Georgian/early Regency era, street lamps typically used whale oil. Around 1817, London theaters started to use gas lighting and there were other big towns that were partially lit by gas. It wasn't until 1834 that 600 miles of gas lines were laid throughout London to light up the streets and public areas of the city.

The most common forms of lighting in the Georgian and Regency periods were rush lights, candles, and oil burning lamps. Note that different social classes used different forms of lighting.


Rushlights were very cheap and easy to make (and have been used since the Middle Ages). Candles were expensive, both due to the materials and because they were taxed. So poor families needed a cheaper means of illumination. Rushlights were made by taking a rush (or even a splinter of wood) and dipping it in grease. Rushes were cut fresh and then soaked. Soaking them made it easier to peel off the hard outer skin. Then the rush would be dipped in mutton grease (or other animal fat). There were special holders for rush lights that pinched the wood between metal pliers. Once the rush burned down to the pinchers, the light went out. Obviously, rushlights did not burn for very long so you'd have to keep burning new ones if you weren't going to bed.

If you'd like to try out a rushlight, Jas Townsend & Son, Inc. makes replicas of old 18th century items. Click on the image for more information. This is a combination rushlight holder which allows for both a candle and a rush. You can see the little pliers holding the rush.

Tallow Candles

Servants and middle class families would use tallow candles. Basically, these candles are made from fat rather than from wax. They were cheaper than wax candles because you could use the fat from your sheep or cows and if you didn't use it all, that fat could be preserved for soaps or for use in the kitchen. A cotton or linen wick was dipped into the fat and solidified. You'd have to keep dipping it until you got the candle to the size you wanted. Technically, you could get around the tax by making a candle from home, though you'd have to buy the material for the wick. If you were purchasing the candle, you had to go to a licensed chandler (I'm guessing to make sure that you paid the appropriate taxes). Tax on tallow candles was a penny/pence.

Keep in mind that both rushlights and tallow candles were made with fat, so they would stink when you burned them. Different methods were suggested for alleviating the smell. Some people soaked the wick in vinegar; others burned pastilles of gunpowder! Tallow candles didn't stay functional as long as wax, so you'd only keep them for a few months, and the wicks had to be trimmed periodically or the candle would sputter.

Wax Candles

Wax candles were pricey and were often made of beeswax, though I did see a mention of spermaceti, which is a wax that comes from the head of a sperm whale. Only wealthy people could afford wax. Going to a house that is lit entirely with wax candles is a significant sign of wealth. Often people would burn tallow candles when there were no guests present and preserve the wax candles for company.

A housekeeper would be in charge of the wax candles and she was allowed to collect the leftover wax stubs and sell them to tradesmen. I saw a funny reference where one household only allowed the butler to keep the wax candles and the housekeeper kept the tallow candles (which indicates how valuable they were).

How to Light a Candle

Here is a fun video I found last month that shows how to light a candle (hint, it requires more than just a match). You may have to increase the volume.

Spunk or Sulfer Match (shows how to light a candle with a flint and tinder tube)

Oil Burning Lamps

Oil lamps would burn whale oil, rapeseed oil, or lard (which was used by the lower classes). Prior to the Regency, oil lamps were "floating lamps" where you would put a wick inside of a bowl of oil and light it. Note that light from a floating lamp burns red. In the late 18th century, people started putting a glass container on top of the oil lamp so that the flame would burn a bright yellow.


Greton, Lel. "Rushlights." Old & Interesting Blog. Web. 17 Apr. 2012. <>.

Hughes, Kristine. The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England, from 1811-1901. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest, 1998. Print.

Pool, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist : The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-century England. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Print.

*Note all images link back to their original source


  1. Great post! There's something very special about candle light, isn't there? So soft and flattering :)

  2. Enjoyed your post, Vivienne. Good resource material.

  3. Very interesting! Thanks for all the good info :)

  4. Thanks everyone! Lighting a candle sounds like such a basic thing, but this is a good reminder that even something so simple required a few extra steps or advance preparation. It's very easy to take for granted our modern conveniences.

    I remember reading a western romance several years ago where there was a funny scene with the heroine (who was wealthy and not used to manual labor) as she tried to figure out how to lite/start a wood-burning stove.

    So I think writers can use these little historical details to add funny moments to a book, to build suspense or to make the descriptions more vivid.

  5. Great post, and great website. Thanks for the information!

  6. Thanks for this great post, i find it very interesting and very well thought out and put together. I look forward to reading your work in the future.Pendant Lights