Well, they used candles then.
That’s about all I knew about Regency-era lighting several years ago, before I cannonballed into the waters of romance-writing. Now I know: yep, they used candles then. And lamps, too. And even gaslight. No fooling.
Lighting is a tricky business in historicals. Writers have to keep in mind the effects of waning light on the way things would look, or the mood that would be cast. We have to keep in mind the side effects of that lighting, too: candles are hot, and they drip and smoke. Lamp oil often has a smell, and the Argand lamps used at the time cast a large shadow. Quite simply, when the daylight went away, everything was different.
To people two hundred years ago, of course, it was normal to have fire hazards all over the place. To spend the evening hours with no light but flames, and the constant thickness of burning lamp oil. And so there’s no need to give special consideration to the lighting in descriptions, unless it’s something a character would notice. But but but, I had to understand the lighting to know if it was something a character WOULD notice.
For example: if a room is lit by candles, a hero can’t be waxing (ha) poetic about the color of the heroine’s eyes, unless he already knows it. Candelight just isn’t bright enough to discern eye color, unless it comes from a chandelier. And if you have a whole chandelier of candles, then you get heat, in a non-sexy sense. If the candles are tallow, they’ll smell like a greasy spoon diner when they burn. If they’re beeswax, they will have a very light and somewhat sweet scent, but those are so expensive that only the wealthy will use them, and only for special occasions like a ball.
These are the details that can help a setting come alive for a writer. And if it comes alive for a writer, then there’s a better chance it will come alive for a reader.
I’m using a lamp as a plot point in my current WIP. My hero is a…well, my agent referred to him as a “mad scientist,” and that’s pretty apt. He’s a nobleman who tinkers. And one of the things he tinkers with is a new kind of lamp. As I mentioned, the Argand lamps cast shadows, because the oil was gravity-fed from above the burner. Behold:
Carcel lamps were newer. They were complicated and hard to maintain, because they ran by clockwork. Their light was better than Argands since they didn’t cast a shadow, but the trade-off wasn’t worth it to most people because of the hassles of the Carcel’s expense and maintenance. In other words: Carcel lamps were gadgets. They were the Kinects of their day, only even gadget-ier. Something a mad scientist could never resist tinkering with, even if the situation was completely inappropriate for tinkering.
The fuel for these lamps is its own interesting story. Petroleum refinement didn’t begin until later in the nineteenth century, so there was no kerosene for Regency lamps. And though a few posh public streets were gaslit, there was no gas lighting for homes. When people lighted a lamp, they were burning oil. Not lamp oil as we know it–which is colorless and odorless–but usually either a vegetable-based oil called colza oil (which looks a lot like modern-day canola and doesn’t have too much of a smell) or whale oil, or less often, fish oils.
You can get whale oil by boiling down blubber, which really makes it more of a melted wax than a true oil. (Not that this mattered to the whales.) Some whale or fish oils could have a very strong smell, depending on the type of animal from which they were made. The best kind of animal oil for lighting was spermaceti, which, when treated, was nearly clear and odorless. This oil comes from a giant reservoir in the head of a sperm whale. No one knows why, but a whale can have up to three tons of this waxy whitish substance in its head. The oil–and the whale–are so called because, well, guess what whalers thought the oil looked like? Yeah.
I’m very glad I can flip on a light switch. How about you?