ANTIQUE WALL SCONCES, CANDLESTICKS, CHANDELIERS AND OTHER LIGHTING DEVICES IN WILLIAMSBURG,
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Not long after the Raleigh Tavern was built sometime before 1742, the ‘Virginia Gazette’ reported that "last Friday being the Anniversary of our Most gracious Sovereign's Accession to the throne... the City was handsomely illuminated." This sounds very brilliant - "handsomely illuminated" - until we recall just what early illumination was like. As late as 1775 Gilbert White recorded in his ‘Natural History of Selbourne’ that rushlights were still being used in England - the pith of rushes soaked in grease, supported in an iron holder. They were used in the Colonies too, though their popularity here at that date seems open to question. At any rate, they were certainly rivaled in the eighteenth century by the candle.
The eighteenth-century candles produced by dipping wicks of flax and cotton thread in melted tallow were not altogether satisfactory, since the material was apt to melt unevenly. Wax candles made from vegetable substances like the bayberry were a bit better. When dipped candles gave place to those made in molds, a considerable labor-saving device, wax candles still had to be made by molding the wax around the wick. Spermaceti candles, made of a waxy substance from the head of the whale, gave a steadier light, and according to a 1749 advertisement had a "sweetness of scent" when extinguished.
Candlelight in the eighteenth century was far from being the pleasant thing we know today. The early type of wick (it was not until 1820 that a plaited wick was developed which was consumed to ash as it burned) became grease-soaked and curled over so that it guttered as it came in contact with the candle top. Constant snuffing was a necessity, so that the burned end, or "snuff," of the wick was cut off. This was done with that necessary household appliance, the snuffer - a scissors-like contraption with a box under one blade to trap the snuff.
The earliest candlesticks, called the pricket type, had consisted of a spike on which the candle was speared. This type was virtually obsolete, except for ecclesiastical use, by the Williamsburg period. The socket holder, derived from Persia, was introduced to Western Europe by the Greek Byzantines some time in the fourteenth century. The method of hollow casting developed in the second half of the seventeenth century made possible a lighter candlestick than the earlier solid forms, and opened the way to the wide variety of baluster designs popular through the eighteenth century. The variety of forms is well illustrated in the candlesticks at Williamsburg, as is also the variety of materials in which candlesticks were made - brass, pewter, silver, glass, ceramics, and enamel. There are also some interesting examples of the heavier early types with great domed bases and drip pans midway on the stem.
Wall sconces for candles, or branches as they were called, were also commonly made of brass, and sometimes had a glass shade to protect the flame. More sumptuous, and far rarer, are the silver sconces in the Palace lining room and in two of the Palace bedchambers. Iron and wood also played their part as materials for candle supports and for lanterns.
The earliest chandeliers consisted of a hoop made of metal or wood equipped with candleholders. A far cry from this is the handsome silver chandelier that hangs in the little dining room of the Palace, its scrolled arms extending from a boldly gadrooned baluster-shaped shaft. One of the first references to glass chandeliers was an announcement in the ‘London Gazette’ in 1714 that John Gumley had for sale "Looking Glasses, Coach Glasses, and Glass Schandeliers." The term ‘lusters’, used at first to describe cut-glass drops, came later to apply to the whole chandelier. One of the handsomest chandeliers at Williamsburg today is the one hanging in the Palace supper room, which is not only a brilliant example of eighteenth-century work but a reminder of the reciprocal trade between East and West at that period. Made in England or Ireland, it was found in Canton, China.
Finding ways to augment the meager light of candles was an ever-present problem in the eighteenth century. The wealthy partially solved it with polished sconces and hanging crystal drops, but we must not lose sight of the fact that for many people a single candle was a luxury.
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