Loris S. Russell. A Heritage of Light: Lamps and Lighting in the Early Canadian Home. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. 344 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8020-3765-7.
Reviewed by Mika Roinila (Department of Geography, State University of New York, New Paltz)
Published on H-Canada (May, 2003)
What was once popular and common-place is today's history. To understand the popular culture of today, we must understand the development of particular phenomena, whether it involves music, fashions, architectural styles, or other material elements of today's culture. Lighting is just one of many important aspects in our understanding of the development of material culture, and it is the focus of the text under review. According to Russell, other areas of material culture that should be studied include domestic heating, kitchen equipment, transportation media, and the evolution of farming techniques (p. 1). Indeed, many of these areas have been studied since the original printing of this text.
The current book is a reprint of Russell's 1968 original work on the subject of lamps and lighting in Canada. A Heritage of Light was the first of its kind, providing a groundbreaking analysis and introduction to the importance of material culture studies and the diffusion process that enabled the growth of the lighting industry. A new foreword to the 2003 edition by Janet Holmes provides an excellent analysis of the impact this work has had on material culture studies since its original printing. The title indicates that the book has a Canadian focus; however, through relevant discoveries and developments in the lighting industry, the reader learns about the influence of the United States, France, Germany, England, and other nations during the period in question.
The book is organized in twelve chapters, dealing with the development of new fuels available for lighting to the various lighting devices that existed from the 1780s forward to the early 1900s. It was the discovery of new fuels that led to different lighting devices, and thus Russell recognizes the progression and history of fuels from olive oil in Southern Europe to whale oil and lard in Northern Europe, through camphene, burning fluid, coal oil (Kerosene), and producer gas to natural gas and electricity.
Some of the earliest history of lighting is covered in the first chapter of the book. From the fireplace to the torch, Russell introduces the reader to some of the oldest lighting methods, which utilized solid-fuel devices. The use of splints (slivers of resinous wood) or rushes (stems of the common rush) led to the building of splint and rush holders made of folded metal or iron (p. 13). In the second chapter, the book moves on to examine various methods of candle making (such as candle molds) and types of candles as well as devices used with candles. These sometimes involved sockets, prickets (candles impaled on a spike), spiral candle holders, candle sconces, and accessories like the snuffer. Methods of lighting these early lamps involved the use of a tinder box and tinder pistol, and eventually the use of the modern friction match.
Semi-liquid lighting devices involved fuel that melts at relatively low temperatures and must be contained in a vessel. Lard, tallow, or other animal fats were used as fuels, giving rise to devices such as the cruise lamp, which was an open pan with one or more angular projections of the rim where the wick was placed. Other devices included the betty lamps, lard lamps, and solar lamps which are discussed in two separate chapters (chapters 3 and 6).
Initially the early liquid-fuel devices that were built of glass or metal bodies, with one or two wicks, used whale oil as their fuel source. Russell provides excellent accounts of the much sought-after sperm oil which was used in lighting provincial lighthouses in Atlantic Canada in chapter 4. Other devices that used whale oil extensively included the famous argand lamps, mantel lamps, astral lamps, and rumford lamps. Other liquid fuels included colza-oil obtained from pressing rape seeds, camphene obtained from rectified turpentine, rosin-oil, and kerosene which originated in Canada. All of these liquid fuels are covered in the variety of lighting devices that developed in the 1800s. Numerous examples of lamps--hand, table, student, wall, hanging, floor, night, and mechanical--are explained by Russell in chapters 5, and 7 through 10.
For a brief period, gas lights were found in cities as part of the public lighting systems. Gas lights appeared in some Canadian homes in the 1840s, but with the popularity of kerosene, gas lights did not make a big impact until the late 1800s. Portability of the kerosene lamp was a major drawback for gas lights, which led to connection hoses to a gas outlet by flexible rubber hose. Russell mentions only a few Canadian examples, and it came as a nice surprise to the author to find such a gas lamp in the walk-through Canadian heritage section of the Museum of Civilization during a recent visit to Ottawa. It was also during this period of gas lights that the well-known incandescent gas mantle, which often is used with camping equipment and the "Coleman lantern," was developed in 1855, but it had not appeared in some Canadian cities as late as 1895. According to Russell, "it was still treated as a novelty" (p. 297).
The book ends with a final brief chapter (chapter 12) devoted to the coming of electricity and the incandescent light bulb. Russell dispels commonly held beliefs that it was Thomas Edison who discovered the first incandescent carbon filament used in the light bulb, which were actually first discovered by Joseph Swan of England and Albon Mann in America in 1878-79. However, it was Edison who is recognized as the inventor, if not the discoverer, of the practical electric light, and who provided the first public demonstration of the electric light on January 1, 1880. His fast work in developing this method along with the popularity electricity gained ensured the demise of earlier lighting methods. Canada received the first electric lights in 1878 in Montreal.
Throughout the book, it becomes evident that Canada and Canadians shared in the development of lighting devices and fuels, some of which include the discoveries by Abraham Gessner of Nova Scotia who was the first to distill kerosene from coal in 1848, and James Williams who supervised the digging of the world's first oil well in southern Ontario in 1854.
Russell collected vast amounts of information from primary sources, obtaining many samples of lights through auctions and private sales, which are meticulously catalogued and cited throughout the text. Artifacts found in national museums in Canada and the United States are similarly cited with great care. A very useful glossary at the end of the book provides a snapshot of the numerous lighting devices, as well as a nomenclature for lamp parts.
While there are plenty of illustrations and photographs throughout the text, one of the drawbacks is the lack of color photography, which would help in gaining a better appreciation for some of the intricate and beautifully made composite lamps, library lamps, and others. Another drawback is the lack of cartographic emphasis to show the various distributions of certain lamps and lighting methods. Russell carefully describes the distribution and range of his findings regarding many lamps, along with other known locations of lights across the country; however, maps would have helped greatly in understanding the spatial distribution of many of the lamps.
Overall, the text is easy to read. However, there does creep in a tendency for repetition, and the latter part of the book seems to cover similar styles of lighting at length. For individuals interested in lighting and for antique collectors, this text is a must and will serve as an excellent reference for the changing designs and uses of lamps. For individuals interested in the diffusion of material culture and the once popular culture of our past, this is an interesting book that uncovers many facets of our daily life that will enlighten your awareness.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-canada.
Mika Roinila. Review of Russell, Loris S., A Heritage of Light: Lamps and Lighting in the Early Canadian Home.
H-Canada, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.