A selection of recent discoveries for your perusal, complete with flippant commentary (as per usual). Enjoy!
A selection of recent discoveries for your perusal, complete with flippant commentary (as per usual). Enjoy!
In last week’s blog post, we talked about the use of light in Christchurch’s city streets and public spaces, from oil lamps to gas lights to electricity in the early 20th century. This week, we step out of the street and through the door into the house, where 19th century residents harnessed everything from naked flame to caged lightning (their words, not mine) to illuminate their daily lives.
In the first years of European settlement, unsurprisingly, lighting options were limited. Setters in the 1850s and early 1860s would have relied exclusively on candles and kerosene for lighting in the home. These had the advantage of being cheap, easy and portable. They also had the disadvantage of being smoky, dim, sometimes odorous and prone to setting things on fire. In a settlement largely constructed from timber, the last of these was definitely a concern.
Candles and kerosene or oil lamps weren’t just used because of a lack of alternative options, however. Even after the introduction of gas lighting into homes later in the 19th century, candles and lamps continued to be a popular method of illuminating the room, so to speak, with contemporary newspapers advertising their use well into the 20th century (Ashburton Guardian 12/05/1900: 3, Star 12/09/1896: 4). In truth, candle light is probably the form of household lighting for which we have the most archaeological evidence, in the form of candle sticks, chamber sticks and candle snuffers. Most households are likely to have had several candle sticks and/or chamber sticks, the flat circular candle holders with a handle and inbuilt snuffer holder for ease of carrying (presumably into the bedchamber, hence the name).
We’ve talked about the types of candles available to consumers before on the blog, from cheap tallow candles to spermaceti (or, as they are hilariously referred to sometimes, sperm candles) and stearine candles, advertised for their superior quality and bright light. The amount of light provided from each of these varied, as one would expect, but even the best stearine candle was limited in the amount of illumination that it could provide. Stearine candles were, however, the ones used as a measurement of candle power against new light forms like burning magnesium. Lights could be anything from 15-20 candle power (basic lamps) to bright light house beacons with candle power measured in the hundreds of thousands.
Candles, like the candle sticks and chamber sticks in which they were displayed, also came in a variety of forms, with some attention paid to appearance. For example, one advertisement offers “plain, fluted or coloured piano and bedroom candles”, suggesting that different candles may have been used in different – perhaps public and private – parts of the house. Similarly, the candlesticks we’ve found have been both decorated and undecorated, in everything from brass to porcelain to plain old refined earthenware. In this way, as with almost every other object we use in our lives, the provision of artificial light becomes another avenue for the expression of style and status and taste within the home (as is still the case today, from modern industrial chic fittings to terrible awful 1970 glass lamp shades).
The same thing is apparent with oil and kerosene lamps. While we tend to only find the plainer lamps in the archaeological record, if we find them at all (lamp glass is thin and fragile and usually in tiny pieces by the time it gets to us), a variety of elaborate casings were available to discerning consumers. Kerosene and oil lamps, as I’m sure many of you are aware, operated by burning fuel, usually stored in a burner at the base of the lamp, through the means of a wick, either an upright or flat wick or a circular rolled wick (also known as the Argand lamp), aided by a draught from the glass chimney casing.
Both kerosene lamps and candles were used in hanging lamps, chandeliers and light fittings as well as the portable lamps and holders that we commonly find in the archaeological record. In fact, archaeological evidence for the more elaborate lights and light fittings is scarce. I think this is probably because they were part of the furnishings of a house and a) less likely to have been broken or damaged than portable lights and b) more likely to have been refitted for gas and/or electricity later on (although we also don’t find many original light fittings in extant 19th century buildings today).
As I mentioned in last week’s post, gas began to be used for lighting in Christchurch in the 1860s. The Christchurch Gas Company was formed in 1862, by which point “the city of Christchurch [had] attained such dimensions and density that it appears capable of supporting a Gas Factory.” The company was formed with the purpose of lighting the city, and the advantages of gas as “the cheapest and safest means of illumination yet offered to the public” were emphasised, particularly in comparison to the cost of oil and candles (Press 22/11/1862: 6). Works were carried out throughout 1863 and 1864 and by November 1864, they were giving notice that gas would be supplied to consumers by early December, aided by the work of Mr Edward Reece, who would “furnish the internal fittings.” The first use of gas lighting in a building appears to have been in late December 1864, when Coker’s Hotel, J. G. Ruddenklau’s City Hotel and a few other buildings braved “the new acquisition” (New Zealand Spectator and Cook’s Strait Guardian 28/12/1864: 3).
By the 1870s and 1880s, many people were lighting their rooms with gas, piped through a meter from the mains laid down under the roads (the connection initially paid for by the Christchurch Gas Company). Public buildings were also outfitted with gas pipes and lamps, although kerosene also seems to have maintained a tenacious hold in some places: the Canterbury Provincial Chambers, although fitted with gas pipes, were still being lit with kerosene in November 1865, much to the outrage of one letter-writing citizen in the local newspaper. Interestingly, gas lighting in domestic residences is another thing that’s under-represented in the archaeological record, likely for the same reasons as the fixed oil and candle light fittings are missing. In fact, sometimes we only find indirect evidence of it, through the presence of associated architectural features like gas vents in ceilings.
Eventually gas lamps were surpassed by the “superior” electric light towards the turn of the century. By the 1910s, houses were being advertised with electric lights as a selling point, although, many homes in Christchurch (and New Zealand) continued to be lit with gas lighting until well into the 20th century. This seems to have the result of a few issues. For one, electricity was expensive, especially at the beginning, and gas was the easier and cheaper option. For another, people in the 19th century had become used to portable, easy, lights in the home and – early on, in the 1880s – electricity was neither of those things. At least one enterprising swindler took advantage of this, advertising “portable electric lamps” for the home in the mid-1880s that sounded an awful lot like oil lamps, described modestly as a “most important invention that will bring about a complete revolution in all branches of lighting” (Thames Star 26/11/1885: 1). The scheme was soon unmasked as “an unmitigated fraud and swindle” (Thames Advertiser 10/02/1886: 3).
It brings up an interesting point though, this emphasis on the portability of light. If there’s anything that stands out to me from the progress of lighting in Christchurch, especially in the home, it’s that shift from artificial light as something personal – that people lit themselves, candle by candle or lamp by lamp, and carried with them – to something that is a fixture of the surroundings, no longer carried with a person, but always there to be switched on (as it is today).
Looking back at last week’s post, there’s also a contrast to be explored between the lighting of the public spaces of the city and the use and perception of light in the private spaces of the home, some of it to do with that same issue of portability. For the city as a community, lighting in public spaces was a question of safety and convenience, a response to the dangers of the dark, as well as a matter of civic pride and a certain standard of civilised living. The fixed street lamps, city wide gas provision, the requirement for lighting outside hotels and early attempts to adopt electricity all bear witness to this. Those same themes of pride and status are evident in the use of light in private homes, from just the ability to provide light after dark to the quality and style of lights used. The lighting of our homes and personal spaces, though, seems to me more of a convenient luxury than a mitigation of danger (although there’s an element of that as well), even in the 19th century. It is what allowed people then – and now – to live their lives outside of the constraints of sunrise and sunset, to essentially manufacture more time from the day.
Ashburton Guardian. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
New Zealand Spectator and Cook’s Strait Guardian. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Thames Advertiser. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Thames Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Beware the darkness, children, for there be monsters
We love to characterise the dark as something to be feared, the territory of nightmares, of ghouls and ghosts and things that go bump. In our collective psyche it belongs to the creatures on the edges of our imagination, to the sinister characters hidden within our society, to nefarious deeds carried out in the shadows. For, as one dramatic journalist puts it in 1882, “darkness is the mother of all evil.”
That characterisation of darkness as a home to all the bad things we can conceive of, be they real or imagined, probably has its roots in some far distant corner of our psychology, but is, I think, exaggerated now by the contrast between the dark and the near constant state of illumination in which we carry out our daily – and nightly – lives. It’s one of the things that we take for granted the most in the 21st century, our access to light wherever we are, whatever time of day it happens to be (especially those of us who live in cities). The absence of sunlight for half of our day is no longer the hindrance to our lives that it once was: it neither prevents nor restricts us from doing what we want to do after the sun has set. If anything, darkness is merely a minor inconvenience that only becomes something more when we’ve forgotten to buy light bulbs, or the power goes out, and we’re reminded that our almost permanently lives are not actually, in fact, the natural state of affairs.
The use of bright electric lights on our streets and in our homes is a relatively recent innovation, as many of you will know. Electric arc lamps were in use from the 1870s onwards, including in New Zealand where the first occasion of their use seems to have been a soccer match between Te Aro and Thorndon in Wellington (not even a rugby game, what a blow to our national identity!; Swarbrick 2012). Towards the end of the decade, Sir Joseph Swan first demonstrated his incandescent light bulb in England in 1878, followed by Thomas Edison’s long-lasting light bulb in 1879. Although other versions of the incandescent light were invented prior to this (there is a surprising amount of controversy and obfuscation out there regarding the invention of the light bulb), it wasn’t really until the late 1870s that the use of this kind of electric light became a commercially viable and practical option for illumination (Friedel and Israel 1986).
Here in New Zealand, electric light was quickly adopted, but took a long time to gain a real foothold in many areas. The early 1880s saw a number of places demonstrate or install electric lighting, including Parliament in 1883, the Savoy Theatre in Christchurch in 1883, the Ross and Glendinning Woollen Factory in Dunedin in 1882, the Press offices in Christchurch in 1885, and Lyttelton Harbour, where a trial system of electric lighting was installed in May 1883 (Aspden 1986, Otago Daily Times 22/05/1883: 3). And of course, in 1888, Reefton became the first town in the Southern Hemisphere to have electric street lighting, powered by the Reefton power station and the nearby Inangahua River (New Zealand Herald 5/10/1888: 5).
Interestingly, many of the early attempts at electric lighting in New Zealand seem to have been in Christchurch, but the streets of the city weren’t lit by the “caged lightning” until the early 20th century (although the possibility was discussed as early as 1888; Star 24/01/1888, Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 4/07/1882: 2). Before that, 19th century Christchurch was lit mostly by oil or kerosene lamps and gas lighting, although even those took a while to implement on a city wide scale. The first lamp posts of any sort weren’t erected on the city streets until 1862, for example, 12 years after the settlement was officially established. Presumably, during the intervening dozen years, people carried lights with them or just tripped over and walked into things a lot. As Te Ara puts it, “citizens regularly fell into streams and open sewers or banged into wandering stock and other obstacles”, a situation which must have been uncomfortable for both citizens and stock.
When those first lamp posts went up in Christchurch, they were filled with kerosene. Sixty-two kerosene lamps were installed in 1862, one for every year of the century (which, despite the symmetry, seems an odd way of determining the extent of your street lighting system; Anderson 1949: 90). These would be lit every night by hand: in 1864, a contractor offered to do so for the small price of 9 and a half pence per lamp per night, while in Lyttelton, in a particularly Dickensian state of affairs, the lamps were apparently cleaned and lit by “mere children” carrying a heavy ladder (Lyttelton Times 1/11/1864: 4, 16/12/1868: 2). Unsurprisingly, no reference to cost was made in that case.
In December 1864, after much discussion in the local newspapers on the subject, the first gas lamp was lit (Anderson 1949: 88). Soon after, the remaining kerosene lamp posts were converted for gas lighting and by 1876 there were 152 gas lamps lighting the city street (Heritage New Zealand, Humphries 2012). The city would continue to be lit by gas – both inside and outside – until 1918, when the gas supply for the streets was finally turned off and electric lighting finally dominated (after decades of discussion about cost; Heritage New Zealand).
In possibly my favourite finding from all of this research, the illumination offered by these street lights – and all forms of 19th century lighting – was described in units of ‘candle-power’. In 1894, one account defends the efficacy of the street lamps in use in Wellington, describing them as fulfilling their intended “20 candle-power”, while the magnesium lighting system proposed for the Lyttelton tunnel in 1865 was described as giving a light “equal to that of 80 stearine candles” (Lyttelton Times 21/12/1865: 2).
The illumination of the tunnel is an excellent reminder that there were other forms of lighting available to the 19th century individual or community. The magnesium light that they used took the form of wire, burned by hand initially since they didn’t have the appropriate lamps, which gave off a “most brilliant light” and was suggested as a likely candidate “to supersede gas for lighting towns.” Other lights used or discussed during this period included arc lamps (mentioned above), acetylene lamps (introduced towards the end of the century) and variations on the typical oil or gas lamp. One Christchurch engineer, Mr J. Hadley, manufactured his own light fuelled by gas made from a combination of tallow and resinous gum, described by contemporaries as being “of excellent quality, burning steadily, without the slightest offensive odour” (Lyttelton Times 18/09/1861: 4).
Unfortunately, there’s very little archaeological evidence of these early forms of lighting to be found. One very notable exception is the Canterbury Club gas light, as it’s known, which still stands on Cambridge Terrace outside the, you guessed it, Canterbury Club. It was erected around 1900 and, despite a small electric interlude in the 1990s (not a bad name for a band, electric interlude), continued to be lit with gas in the 21st century, which is pretty brilliant (pun intended; Heritage New Zealand). This lamp, and the occasional arc lamp carbon rod, continues to be the only remaining physical evidence we have for public street lighting in Christchurch. Everything else we find is associated with the use of artificial light inside structures, be they public buildings or private residences, something that we’ll talk about in next week’s post.
There’s any number of things to be said about the progress of street lighting in Christchurch, from the way it reflects the transition of the settlement from ‘swamp to city’ to the social beliefs and behaviour driving the need of the community to illuminate their public spaces (darkness is the mother of all evil, indeed). What stands out the most to me, though, is the rapidity with which the city trialled, if not implemented, the new technology (the early 1880s!) and the innovation with which individuals like Mr J. Hadley adapted that technology, even if just to find a way of making gas from tallow. As with so many other aspects of life in Christchurch (and New Zealand), to view the city as a passive recipient of new technology does a disservice to the individuals whose ideas and entrepreneurial spirit made the city what it is today.
Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Anderson, J. C. 1949. Old Christchurch in Picture and Story. Simpson & Williams Limited, Christchurch, New Zealand.
Aspden, R., 1896. “Centenary of electricity in NZ – Bullendale 1886-1986. In New Zealand Engineering: The Journal of the Institution of Professional Engineers in New Zealand, Vol. 41: 5, p. 6-7.
Friedel, R. and Israel, P. 1986. Edison’s electric light: biography of an invention. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. pages 115–117
Humphris. A, 2012. ‘Streets and lighting – Street lighting’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/streets-and-lighting/page-5.
Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Otago Daily Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Swarbrick, N. 2012. ‘Rural services – Electricity’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/rural-services/page-4