Jane Austen by Candlelight – or was it a lamp?

In September 1813 Jane Austen was staying with her brother Henry at his Henrietta Street address in Covent Garden, along with their brother Edward, his daughter Fanny and two of Fanny’s younger sisters. On the 16th Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra, ‘We are now all four of us young Ladies sitting around the Circular Table in the inner room writing our Letters, while the two Brothers are having a comfortable coze in the room adjoining.’1-Barretts bill minor crop

It is a charming picture, but how were the four ladies illuminating their work? Probably not with smelly tallow dip candles, unless they were in an economical mood. Those were made from mutton fat, usually contained bits of meat, smelled strongly and, in homes with any pretence to gentility, were Candle advert cropconfined to the service areas.

There was an “economy” candle available – tallow with a wick that had been dipped in wax which must have reduced the smell a little and, according to The Candle & Soap Company’s advert of August 1802 shown left, (The Statesman newspaper), would not “Gutter except from bad handling or carrying about.”

However, we know that the Austens bought pure wax candles from Penlington’s, a tallow chandlers at the sign of the Crown and Beehive, Charles   Street (now Wellington Street), a short walk from the Covent Garden piazza and Henrietta Street. It evidently produced superior candles, for the family would order from them by mail: on 1 November 1800 Jane tells Cassandra, who has just passed through London on her way to Kent, that their mother was ‘rather vexed’ because Cassandra did not call at Penlington’s but that she had sent a written order, ‘which does just as well.’

I don’t have a bill from Penlington’s, but the one shown at the top is from the very smart shop, Barrett & Beaumont, Wax Chandlers to Their Majesties – you can see the royal coat of arms to the left and the Prince of Wales’s feathers on the right, denoting the royal warrents.  The bill, for two pounds eight shillings and six pence is for twelve candles – I think it says “sperm” for spermaceti (ie whale oil) and three “Wax Moons”, which are a mystery to me.Candle magnifier

A single candle, or even a branch of candles, does not produce a very bright light, so for detailed work there were methods of focusing and concentrating the light. One method was to place a glass globe filled with water in front of the flame and this photograph (right) shows a device for giving a group of sewers stronger light from just one candle. (Birmingham Museums Reserve Collection).

Argaud lampThe first lamp designed on scientific principles was the Argand lamp, patented in 1780. It used a wick drawing on a reservoir of whale (spermaceti) or vegetable oil and they were made in very handsome designs in silver or in Sheffield plate. The photograph (left) is of one at Soho House, Birmingham, the home of Matthew Boulton, the manufacturer. This particular pattern is silver plate, of about 1800.

Soho House also contains another lamp by Matthew Boulton & Plate Company, this time of c.1820 (shown below). It is a neat little bedside lamp made to burn colza (rape seed) oil. With our frequent power cuts out here in the country I rather covet this little lamp.colza lampIf anyone knows what a “wax moon” might be, I’d love to hear from you!


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19 responses to “Jane Austen by Candlelight – or was it a lamp?

  1. What a fascinating post, Louise. I’d love to know what a wax moon is too. And I imagine lamps were more widely used than we suppose. They must have burned longer than candles because slower, and would allow someone to have a light burning for several hours. Candles were dangerous to leave alight when you went to sleep.

  2. Fascinating as usual. Moons do wax and wane, don’t they? (I’ll get me coat.)

  3. spabbygirl

    Yes a waxing moon is one of the moon’s phases and those who garden or farm biodynamically will only do certain jobs when the moon is in the right phase for it.

  4. Thanks, Elizabeth & Lesley. I wonder if the candle shop was making a pun when it sold “Wax moons” – as spabbygirl says, that’s a phase of the moon (my grandfather would sow vegetables acording to the moon, as you say!) – but what exactly would a “wax moon” costing 4s 2d each (not cheap!) have been, I wonder. A flat disc candle??

  5. I wondered if it might be a large flat candle, Louise – a luxury, perhaps, but it would look pretty on a mantelpiece!

  6. Some enlightenment (sorry!) from candle expert Roy Wilde of British Candlemakers who says – “The bill shown requires a little interpretation to get at the whole story. I suspect that the £1 16s for spermacetti was for 12 dozen, which would make sense given the several months of the account. Even then 3d each for one spermacetti was a little steep – undoubtedly the charges of a West End supplier – no change there!”
    Roy is looking into the ‘Waxed Moons’ so watch this space. Thanks so much, Roy

  7. Very interesting, Louise. Wax moons is intriguing, isn’t it? I can’t think it meant a large diameter candle as it would be inefficient, and also it surely would need to be short to resemble a moon. I wonder if it was a disk of white wax to be used to make candles at home.

    I did a quick search of googlebooks in our period and didn’t find a reference. I checked “wax moors” as well, just in case, but nothing there either.

  8. Good idea, Jo – I hadn’t thought of Googlebooks. I must check some of my housekeeping books of the period. But you’d think they’d just sell blocks of wax… I’m beginning to think it was a gimmick of that particular shop

  9. A wax moon means it’s getting larger in the sky! Moving from the new moon to the full moon.

  10. I agree, Amanda, that’s what a waxing mon is – but what were the “wax moons” that Barrett & Beaumont were selling in the invoice at the top of the post?

  11. How interesting, Louise. I’m eager to know what a ‘wax moon’ is, too. I’ve never met the term in all my research. Someone will be bound to know. This is the Internet, after all!

  12. Sue Scott

    I suspect that they refer to a moon candle made of wax, but what a moon candle is, I’m not sure. I found one reference that implies it is an all-weather or an indoor-outdoor candle.

  13. Meg Levin

    Here is a reference to “wax moons” in a book about pharmacies. They are indeed a kind of candle.(I’ve used tinyurl.com to reduce the length of the URL) http://tinyurl.com/n6bco2z

  14. Thanks, Meg! Following that reference I’ve found some more – it sounds as though they are very hard wax candles made for carriage lamps where there is a spring under the base of the candle that pushes it up as it burns. I’ve got a 19thc work lamp that has the same sort of spring

  15. Reblogged this on Angela's Hub On WordPress and commented:
    Wonderful glimpse into Austen’s life; love it. 🙂

  16. Pingback: Gazeta de Meryton, 23 de junho de 2013 | Jane Austen em Português

  17. atbankofdam

    Reblogged this on atbankofdam.

  18. Pingback: Gazeta de Meryton, 23 de junho de 2013 - Jane Austen em Português

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