Before electricity

This online exhibition explores electric lighting within the home. It briefly describes life before electricity, early developments in lighting and how the benefits of electricity were promoted.

Mankind has made use of light for thousands of years. From the primitive use of fire to simple oil lamps then to the more sophisticated gas and electric lights that are more familiar to our lifetimes.

Before electricity was made available as a means of lighting one's home the most common method was either by candlelight or by gas.

Paraffin Lamp safety pamphlet

Up until the twentieth century candles were made of tallow which is the solid part of animal fat and was the cheapest material to use. Although cheaper they were very smelly and produced a lot of dirty smoke. Oil lamps were an improvement but still suffered from the smell and needed constant cleaning, refuelling and adjusting.

The pamphlet illustrated was published to promote the safety aspect of this particular paraffin lamp. Around the edge of the cover it illustrates this point with the remark that Hampton Court Palace had twice burnt down and asks the question- "England insists on Safety Lamps for her Mines; why not Safety Lamps for her Masses?". The skull inside the glass also vividly emphasises the dangers associated with other paraffin lamps.

Gas lighting offered some improvement. The gas light of the nineteenth century was simply the light of a naked gas flame and looked much like a large candle flame. Its introduction made a big difference to the lives of many- light became readily available without the need to continually clean and trim the wicks of oil lamps, or the constant need to replace candles and clean up the mess of spilt wax. However, it had the disadvantage of making rooms very hot and stuffy by taking oxygen from the air.

A selection of gas lamps from 1818

     A selection of gas lamps from 1818                                     

These illustrations show a selection of gas lamps from Fredrick Accum's book A Practical Treatise on Gas-Light, London, 1818. Early electric lights used similar designs to appeal to customers.

Next page → Early developments in electric lighting

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