Before gas, did candles really illuminate rooms well?
July 28, 2014 11:13 PM   Subscribe

Watching A period piece film and wondering if, before gas and electric lighting, having a roomful of candles ever really illuminated things as much as they appear here or were all large rooms of the time like spotily-lit caverns after dark?

Of course I'm thinking of 18th and 19th century here, where scenes of grand balls and huge dining rooms are shown as perfectly bright. Now of course this is a function of cinematic storytelling, but it made me wonder if large rooms in the pre-gaslight era were dark seas with islands of light here and there after dusk.
posted by Senor Cardgage to Technology (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I grew up in a pretty big house in an area with frequent power outages.

You could make rooms fairly bright and cheery at night, it just took quite a few candles, strategically placed. The rooms were probably darker than shown in the movies (just like "nighttime" in the movies is blue-toned daylight), but it wouldn't have been dark with spots of light either. Also mirrors either in lanterns or strategically on the walls, would've bounced light quite effectively, increasing the lit feeling of the space.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 11:27 PM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here is a fun discussion of radiance and illuminance. Here is a reference about average illuminance for various human activities.

Basically, if you assume that an average taper candle lives up to the standard of a foot-candle (i.e. the amount of light a foot away from the standard single-frequency point source that represents a candle), and you use the handy reference, it takes about 10 to 20 footcandles to produce an exhibition-hall environment. If you stick your candles into a candelabra, with prisms and reflectors to maximize the light below, you can readily cram a hundred candles five feet overhead to create a pretty bright space at seated-to-standing eye level. But if your 20x10x10 dining room has six ordinary sconces that hold two candles each, you're going to be hard-pressed to see your dinner, much less your dining companions.
posted by gingerest at 11:40 PM on July 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: You might be interested in the movie Barry Lyndon, which is a period piece set in your time period, in which the interior scenes really are lit only by candlelight.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:28 AM on July 29, 2014 [18 favorites]

Here's a candle scene from Barry Lyndon. There are several on YouTube.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:18 AM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Your eyes adjust impressively well to low levels of light.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:29 AM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

You might also consider the movie Amadeus, which was shot by available light, as well.
posted by pjern at 1:51 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Related: when electric light came to.the West of Ireland some people complained that it revealed how dirty the houses were versus the gentler gas light.
posted by StephenF at 2:05 AM on July 29, 2014 [8 favorites]

Fire is still fire. Darkness is still darkness. For a taste of real life (not grand ballrooms lit with many candles maintained by full-time candle-lighting servants), buy yourself a box of utility candles and see for yourself.

Light 1 or 2 or 5 or 10 or 30 candles, with or without a mirror behind them, and see what it's like to write half a letter, put the cat out, pour a glass of wine, just get started reading a book, let the cat in, make and eat a simple meal, put the cat out, find and use the toilet, let the cat in, etc.

Just don't burn down the house.
posted by pracowity at 2:27 AM on July 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Bill Bryson addresses this in his book At Home: A Short History of Private Life.
posted by jrobin276 at 2:55 AM on July 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

I took this picture of the interior of my parent's log cabin lit only by candles. It probably appears a little brighter than it really is, as I took that with a Canon 5D mk II, and I don't recall what ISO setting I used, but that thing can take some pictures in the dark. To some extent, your eyes adjust to the darkness, and that picture seems about how I remember what it was like being there. It would have been difficult to read a book by that light, for example, unless you brought the book close to a candle on the table or had very good eyesight.
posted by smcameron at 5:17 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Besides the number of candles, it would depend on the surface finishes around the room. The lighter and more reflective the room surfaces are, the longer a given bit of light will bounce around illuminating things before it is finally absorbed or escapes out a window.
posted by jon1270 at 5:27 AM on July 29, 2014

Folks also used oil lamps, which are brighter than candles.
posted by Specklet at 5:40 AM on July 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

No, not really. Candles and oil were expensive and not used in excess. I remember hearing stories of older people when they first got electricity. The most common observation was how filthy everything was. They hadn't noticed it before.
posted by myselfasme at 6:30 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another aspect of this issue (at least from what tour guides at historic homes have told me), candles were fairly expensive around that time frame. Even the wealthy class generally weren't burning huge chandeliers full of candles on a nightly basis.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:32 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here's a short thing on 18th and 19th century lighting.

In the 19th century, there were quite a variety of liquid fuel lamps, with stronger steadier light than candles. Back at the start of the industrial age, whale oil was used for heating, lubrication, soap, candle wax, and the processing of textiles and rope. But its true value came as a fuel source for lamps. Far superior to animal tallow or bees wax, its ability to produce a smokeless flame made it a fuel source that was second to none — qualities that soon led to intense demand. This is why whales were hunted almost to extinction. What saved the whales (sort of) was the invention of kerosene. Kerosene lamps were very popular after their invention in the second half of the 19th century.

Here is Laura Ingalls Wilder talking about using coal oil lamps in 1915 (see last paragraph on p. 36). Her family was by no means well off at the time she is discussing. She writes in her books about her family, which often struggled financially, using oil lamps and candles when she was growing up.

To more specifically answer your question, whether with candles or oil lamps, in the average household you did not get the kind of wide illumination you could get with gas light (sort of) and most particularly with electric light, even using oil lamps or candles with reflectors behind them. There would still be areas of darkness.
posted by gudrun at 7:54 AM on July 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

At Day's Close is a really great book that will give you some more information. The author covers life in various social strata before electric lighting.
posted by velebita at 5:14 PM on July 29, 2014

Relatedly, NPR's Planet Money did a great segment on the history of light/electricity, and how much it cost to light one's home compared to now. It was fascinating. Even if you got much light from candles, the real question is, who could afford those candles, and where did they come from? ... Yankee Candle Company probably not so much.
posted by hydra77 at 10:47 PM on July 29, 2014

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