The Light (and Dark) of the World: Lighting and Heating in Past Centuries
Julia entered the dark house, her heart pounding with fear. The hall was empty, but Rufus sat in the library, waiting for her.
Wrong, all wrong. If the house is dark, how does she know the hall is empty? How can she see Rufus? Did Julia feel her way into the kitchen, stir up warm ashes in a banked fire and light a lamp or candle? Is Rufus sitting next to a brightly burning fire? Has Julia lit a lamp or candle placed near the door? Getting historic lighting right not only avoids inconsistencies, but plunges the reader deep into your fictional world.
Here’s a brief rundown on the history of lighting:
- In the ancient Mediterranean world, people made use of the abundant olive oil for easy lighting. It’s hard to say when candles were invented, but they took a lot of time to make, and it was far easier dumping some oil into a lamp, putting in a little cloth wick, and lighting it.
- After the fall of the Roman Empire, trade in the Mediterranean decreased sharply, olive oil was harder to come by, and most Europeans switched to using candles—stinky, smoky, animal fat tallow if they were poor, beeswax if they were rich.
- Both oil lamps and candles were used in chandeliers, which were raised and lowered on a chain to clean and refill.
- It’s safe to say most people kept an oil lamp or candle, along with a flint and tinder set, at different places throughout the house: the exterior doors and next to their beds, for instance. In the pitch dark, they would strike a flint against a piece of iron or steel, and the resulting sparks would land in a pile of lint or dried grass, catch fire, and they would dip their candle or lamp wick into it.
- Using tinder and flint was a hassle, often taking several minutes, and it’s no wonder people went wild for matches when they were mass-produced in the 1830s.
- Resin-soaked torches were used from ancient times into the early nineteenth century against stone walls and outside. And then there were cressets—iron baskets on top of long poles in the ground burning firewood. They cast a lot of light, but Lord, were they hot.
- Starting in 1812 with London, municipal authorities installed gas light, which spread slowly to other major European cities and even more slowly to towns and villages.
- When electricity came to large cities in the 1890s, most people hated it. Light bulbs emitted mush less light than gas lamps, and many people complained they were going blind in the dark!
Whatever the source of light in your past century, use it to add atmosphere. Evenings—no matter how many torches, lamps, or candles in a room—were just a lot darker than they are now. Imagine the orange flicker of torches on walls. The soft brown and gold glow of lamp light or candles. A summer garden party where the heat of the cressets nearly melts a girl’s silk dress onto her skin.
Which brings me to heating:
- For most of human history, people had fire pits in the center of a room with a smoke hole overhead (which let in cold air and rain.)
- They also had braziers, metal pans or boxes in which they burned wood or coal. They placed them near an open window to vent smoke (which let in cold air and rain.)
- Fireplaces, which directed the smoke (and a large portion of the heat) up the chimney were invented in the twelfth century in Europe.
- Coal-fired steam radiators became popular in the 1890s.
Next Week: The Best Medicine, How the healing arts are vital to creating your world.
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