Queen Victoria presided over a domestic revolution in technological terms. In the 63 years of her reign many of the things we now take for granted first appeared in the average British home. Inventions such as plumbed in baths, flushing toilets and sewing machines, many of which had been around for several decades, had finally become affordable to the general public, who flocked to fill their homes with them.
Lighting was no exception. At the beginning of the Victorian era most people could only afford to light their homes with candles and oil lamps, despite gas being so readily available that it had been used to light streetlamps for decades. The electric light was first invented in 1800 by the English scientist Humphrey Davis. By the 1880s, however Thomas Edison has unveiled his incandescent bulb to the world and declared to “make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”
Let us take a look at how lighting evolved throughout that period.
At the beginning of the period candles were the most common form of lighting the home, particularly for the working classes. They came in three types; beeswax, tallow and spermaceti – made of beeswax, animal fat and whale oil, respectively. Tallow was the cheapest but smelled horrendous, as well as giving off a thick smoke whilst beeswax was prone to melt in warm weather. By the turn of the century, paraffin wax had become to go-to candle wax being cheap, reliable and odourless.
Decoration was as important as practicality for many Victorian homes, particularly during the start of the period. Chandeliers and candelabra were decorated with frills, tassels and shades well into the second half of the century. Technologically, innovative lenses and reflected were fitted to maximize light distribution and spring loaded mechanisms would raise the candle as it burned, to ensure it remained at the same height as the fitted lenses.
Candles were in fact present in British homes well into 20th century, particularly in rooms without a gas fitting. Even when the use of electricity began to eclipse that of candles, manufacturers would produce fittings to mimic the old style chandeliers – a nostalgia that lasts still today.
At the start of the period oil lamps were simple devices, consisting of just a wick protruding from a well of whale or vegetable oil. The invention of the Argand oil lamp some half a century earlier, however, was beginning to change all this. Unlike the early oil lamps, the Argand could produce a bright and constant light source although the only oil available at the time was prohibitively viscous.
The invention of paraffin solved the problems faced by the Argand and allowed for a number of other oil lamp innovations. These innovations continued until the late 1800s until the oil lamp began being replaced by the light bulb. Some oil lamps invented in those times still remain today however and are used as camping lamps.
Despite gas being used to light street lamps in the early 1800s, it was largely distrusted as a fuel in the home. This began to change in 1859 when the new Houses of Parliament were fitted with gas lighting and soon many fashionable town houses began to be fitted with gas lighting in the living rooms and corridors.
Whilst the early gas lights used an open flame, fishtail burners (still used in devices such as blow torches today) had become popular by the mid 19th century. As was the case with candles and oil lamps, shades and fittings were opulently decorated, particularly towards the end of the century.
After the arrival of the incandescent bulk in 1879, wealthy Victorians began to fit their homes with electricity and light bulbs. Early bulbs were ornate, highly decorated items available in all manner of shapes and sizes. It wasn’t until after the First World War, however, that electric lighting really began to take off in Britain.
Until that time, gas lighting was most popular in towns and cities, being supplemented by oil and candle lights. In smaller towns and villages, however, candles and oil lamps remained the primary methods of lighting for several decades until homes finally began being connected to the newly emerging electricity grid.