Manual Monday: Light

An overview of lighting technology, circa 1900. Wikipedia

I’d been wanting to do a post on light since… well, since it was early spring! I was inspired by a post from This Victorian Life, a website maintained by a couple in Washington state who maintain, to the best of their ability, a household as one would have looked circa 1890. But more on that in a moment.

This post is actually somewhat of a misnomer – there’s really no such thing as human-powered light, but for the sake of the topic I’ll stretch it to refer to light sources prior to electricity. Light sources that required, for all intents and purposes, a lot of manual labor to maintain because they make use of fire.

The general history of human-harnessed light is pretty simple: fire, then torch, then oil lamp and candle pretty much sum up the vast majority of the timeline. The “modern” oil lamp, the Argand lamp, came about in 1780 – just a moment ago on the timeline of human history.


Ancient Greek and Roman oil lamps. Wikipedia

Oil and gas lamps are pretty straightforward, and most of us know how they generally work. For oil, a strand of fibrous material is set into a reservoir of oil, and the end set alight once saturated. It’s not the wick itself that burns much, but the oil itself, therefore wicks could last a long while if properly maintained.

Most gas lamps don’t have wicks, and work similarly to the still ubiquitous gas stove, able to burn a number of types of combustive gas. (The Coleman camping lantern – you know, the one with the little fabric socks, called mantles, that burn bright white – doesn’t quite fall into this category as the light is produced from both the gas as well as the mineral coating on the delicate woven sleeve. Which, I might add, is made from rare earth materials: specifically, cerium and thorium. Yes, the same thorium some very excitable people want to build household nuclear reactors with.) I’m iffy on whether or not gas should count here, though; the technology to maintain gas lamps require industrial infrastructure and fossil fuels, which is honestly little different in that regard to the electrical grid of today. With the added complication of the Jevons Paradox having obliterated all efficiency gains by many, many orders of magnitude, of course. So for now, let’s discount them.

There are a lot of other kinds of lamps that were in use over the centuries, however. The Betty lamp, the carbide lamp, and limelights were once widely used.

This is where this Manual Monday post differs from the others, though: it’s not so much a survey of pre-industrial lighting technology, how it works, and whether any of it is viable to bring back, so much as it is about what light does for our environments, out habits, and our lives, and whether our older relationship to light will ever make a willing comeback. (My bets are on “no”.)

Sarah Chrisman writes about her daily routine of maintaining the kerosene lamps in her house on her blog, and touches on the philosophical and poetic implications of light:

Yesterday the stormy weather brought on darkness so early that I already found myself wanting a lamp at half past four.  I duly lit our bright Miller lamp, and smiled at the cozy smell of the kerosene.  There is something very comforting in that scent, like the essence of home.  When electric lights first came into fashion women called them cruel for the way they showed up all imperfections; they even said electric light made people look dead.  The light of an oil lamp is warm, and welcoming, and very much alive.

The hours of darkness are long in winter.  The scant daylight time is so devoted to tasks that will warm our weak human frames and let us see when the night comes; sometimes it feels as though life at this time of year is devoted to the service of fire.  Yet let no one call it burdensome, for tending the hearth and keeping the lamps of home burning is one of the most sacred of all ancient duties.  The goddess Hestia is much in my thoughts at this time of year.  Though entitled to her place at the table with the other gods of Olympus, she chose —and was happiest— with her seat by the hearth.

Much of life pre-electricity was dominated by the available natural lighting, utilizing candles and lamps only as a buffer against the darkness rather than a brute-force attack on it. During long winter months, much of life ground to a halt as communities spent most of their time indoors and near the fire, where they told stories, made or mended clothes, maintenanced hunting and fishing equipment, and chipped away at other small, simple works of craftsmanship. Outdoor work was done by the light of the sun, and for many that meant rising early and going to bed similarly early. Long nights without artificial lighting gave rise to a phenomenon called “second sleep” or segmented sleep, which is lost to obscurity for modern users of electric light. From

The existence of our sleeping twice per night was first uncovered by Roger Ekirch, professor of History at Virginia Tech.

His research found that we didn’t always sleep in one eight hour chunk. We used to sleep in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. This range was about 12 hours long, and began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning.

References are scattered throughout literature, court documents, personal papers, and the ephemera of the past. What is surprising is not that people slept in two sessions, but that the concept was so incredibly common. Two-piece sleeping was the standard, accepted way to sleep.


But just what did people do with these extra twilight hours? Pretty much what you might expect.

Most stayed in their beds and bedrooms, sometimes reading, and often they would use the time to pray. Religious manuals included special prayers to be said in the mid-sleep hours.

Others might smoke, talk with co-sleepers, or have sex. Some were more active and would leave to visit with neighbours.

The article goes on to explain that while segmented sleeping is natural, it isn’t necessarily better – simply a way for our bodies to deal with prolonged darkness.

And when not sleeping, there are just some things that can’t be done by candle or lamplight, like reading for extended periods of time, or other work that requires strong eyes like embroidery. For a modern electricity-user, this means boredom. I think our ancestors had a very different way of thinking about boredom than we do – namely, that they were less perturbed by it. Ran Prieur, in his much-celebrated (and probably much-maligned) essay How to Drop Out, talks about what effect removing oneself from the noise and chaos of capitalist-approved ways of living has on the mind during the transition phase:

The most fundamental freedom is the freedom to do nothing. But when you get this freedom, after many years of activities that were forced, nothing is all you want to do. You might start projects that seem like the kind of thing you’re supposed to love doing, music or writing or art, and not finish because nobody is forcing you to finish and it’s not really what you want to do. It could take months, if you’re lucky, or more likely years, before you can build up the life inside you to an intensity where it can drive projects that you actually enjoy and finish, and then it will take more time before you build up enough skill that other people recognize your actions as valuable.

This, I pretty firmly believe, is the way pre-industrial (peasant-types is more like it, though) people related to their spare time. Which, sometimes, was available in spades.

The Beavans go through this in their No Impact Man Family experiment when they shut off the electricity in their house. It was disorienting at first, but they eventually learned to spend more time outside the home, taking advantage of all the public space New York City has to offer.

Is It Viable?

Non-electric lighting is great for ambiance, for emergencies, and for off-grid situations – but as anything near approaching a full-time regimen is just not going to work for most people in the western world, obviously. For one, the logistics of maintaining these older methods of lighting are too complex to do regularly. Is there a place to buy kerosene or wicks nearby? Prooobably not.

The other aspect is the obvious change in lifestyle it would necessitate: having less light after the sun’s gone down means less time taken up by idle habits once taken for granted, and once the novelty wears off, boredom would reign for a long while.

Perhaps as an exercise, it might be both fun and sobering: a lightless day once a month, or once a week, could be helpful in resetting the energy “credit” that outlets and light switches afford us. Instead of paying for energy upfront, as is the case with fire-based lighting (where both the source and the light are proximally located), where we might see the wax drip or the oil reservoir slowly empty, we borrow energy on a kind of credit: paying only after we’ve used what we’ve used, only being able to guess at what the actual cost of our usage will be until the bill arrives. Being disconnected from the grid in that way is a lot like being cash-only. You want more money? You have to go to the bank and get it.

Most importantly, however, is that non-electric lighting requires a complete change not just in lifestyle, but worldview: it necessitates slowness, acceptance of boredom, and more deference to the sun. It requires the cultivation of a more robust inner life, and more comfort in connecting with those proximal with us.

This all assumes that backlit screens count as electric artificial light, and that’s because they are. They carry on the effects of daylight on our eyes and bodies long into hours of dark. What if you limited your use of smartphones and tablets and computers to when the sun was out and no longer? Now that might be an interesting exercise…

Further Reading

Lighting in the Victorian Home – Building Conservation
Posts about going off-grid – No Impact Man
1.3 Billion Are Living In The Dark – Washington Post
Segmented Sleep – Wikipedia
Living Without: Electric Light – The Rustic Elk