From Candles To Electricity: The History of Lighting

From Candles To Electricity: The History of LightingDuring the 63 years of Queen Victoria's reign, from 1837 to 1901, life in ordinary houses was transformed by a succession of technological developments which we now take for granted: flushing toilets, plumbed-in baths and showers, regular postal deliveries and light fittings capable of illuminating whole rooms at a time. 

At the start of the Victorian period most houses were lit by candles. Three types of candle were commonly used; 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! and Spermaceti candles were made from whale oil, 

Another method of lighting was oil lamps - chandeliers (hung from the ceiling) and sconces (fixed to the wall). However, these were mainly used on special occasions, and most ordinary events after sunset took place using portable light sources such as candlesticks, and by the light of the fire. By the end of the period gas lighting was common in urban homes and electricity was being introduced into many. 

Gas lighting of buildings and streets began early in the 19th century, with most streets in London lit by gas as early as 1816. For the first 50 years it was generally distrusted and few homes were lit. After gas fittings were introduced in the new Houses of Parliament in 1859 the tide turned. Town houses constructed in the 1860s often had a central pendant gas light in each of the principal rooms with a ventilation grille above, disguised in the deep recesses of the ceiling rose. Gas 'wall brackets' were used in place of the sconce, and some staircases were lit by newel lights attached to the newel post. The largest pendant fittings had several burners and were known as gasoliers. Many new homes continued to be built with gas lighting until the First World War 

In 1879 Thomas Edison beat rivals like Sir Joseph Swan to perfect the first viable incandescent light bulb. One year later, Cragside, a rambling mansion near Newcastle designed by Norman Shaw, was the first house to be lit electrically, using Swan's 'electric lamps'. 

Early light bulbs were available in a wide variety of shapes and patterns, often highly ornamented, but as the novelty value wore off and the short life span of the bulb was recognised, attention turned back to the shade and the fittings themselves. By Queen Victoria's death in January 1901, electric lighting was still in its infancy. Gas lighting was still common in the cities and larger towns, in smaller towns and villages lighting remained almost exclusively by candles and oil lamps. All the principal forms of lighting were thus in use at the same time, and it was not until after the First World War that electric lighting finally emerged as the predominant source of light in the home. 

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