Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Oldest "Candle" Still in Use?

Object: Rush light
Accession #: 1986.0006

Rushlights were made by dipping the pith of the soft rush, Juncus Effusus, in melted fat. This particular iron rush light is a slender iron twisted stem mounted on circular base. The rush is held in place by a clamp which ends in a faceted knob.  According to one historian, rush lights are “the oldest candle-like device to continue in use unchanged well into the nineteenth century.”  This rush light was found in Sussex in Southern England and was believed to have been made there in the first half of the 18th century.
It is learnt from Pliny that the Romans used various kinds of rushes to make candles. Rush lights do not burn in the vertical position until they are dipped enough times to become cylindrical and are then called a rush candle. However, rush lights do not have to be snuffed out like candles do. There was certain folklore connected with rushlights. Particularly if a rushlight in “swealing” curled over it was thought to point to death or if a bright star in the flame of a rushlight was seen it foreshadowed a letter arriving.
Gilbert White in his Natural History of Selbourne1 (1789) describes the Juncus Effusus, its harvest and preparation toward eventually becoming a rush light:
Juncus Effusus by Otto Wilhelm Thomé2
The proper species is the common soft rush, found in most pastures by the sides of streams and under hedges. Decayed labourers, women, and children gather these reeds in late summer. As soon as they are cut, they must be flung into water, and kept there, otherwise they will dry and shrink, and the peel will not run. When peeled they must lie on the grass to be bleached, and take the dew for some nights, after which they are dried in the sun.
The rushes referred to are the Juncus Effusus, or Common Rush, which is native to most continents.  The plant referred to here is the Juncus Interior, or interior rush in North America, and grows inland (native to Virginia as well as other states) in moist areas such as meadow and spring prairies.
In the 18th-19th century in Northwest England as well as some southern parts, the rush light was an important supply of light. According to Mr. White, “a pound and a half of rushes will supply a family all the year round. A rushlight a little over two feet long will burn almost an hour”. The Randolph family may have taken advantage of the access they had to the Juncus Interior to have rush candles made or owned several rush lights. These could have lit up the rooms of Wilton for many long hours of the winter. However, rush lights were known for being inexpensive, so for the Randolphs these would not have been as necessary a source of light for Wilton as to a poor family of little means.

1 an Hampshire village in Southern England
2 German Botanist and botanical artist from Cologne best known for his compendium of botanical illustrations Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz in Wort und Bild für Schule und Haus (Flora of Germany, Austria and Switzerland in Word and Picture for School and Home) first of 4 volumes with a total of 572 botanical illustrations, published in 1885 in Gera, Germany.

Burton, Alfred. Rush-bearing: an account of the old custom of strewing rushes; carrying rushes
to church; the rush cart; garlands in churches; morris-dancers; the wakes; the rush.
Manchester. Brook & Chrystal, 1891.
Thwing, Leroy Livingstone. Flickering Flames: A History of domestic lighting through the ages.
C.E. Tuttle Co. Rutland, 1958.
“Otto Wilhelm Thomé” Wikipedia. 13 April 2013.
Image Credit

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A "Perfect" Image of the Self

Object: Looking glass or mirror, ca. 1760-1770
Accession #: 1959.0009

Mirrors as far back as 6000 B.C.E. were made of obsidian, a naturally occurring black glass. These mirrors were “honed carefully into a flat, polished surface, it provided a dark and haunting vision of the self.”  Since the Renaissance, large flat mirrors became a part of the “indoor landscape” of American and European upper class homes.  Pocket mirrors became widespread throughout all classes.  This English George II Parcel-Gilt Mahogany Chippendale looking glass, or mirror, in Wilton’s collection has a broken pediment centering a gilded phoenix and is framed with egg-and-dart border.  It is much like one that might have graced the walls of one of the rooms of the Randolph family.

During the sixteenth century, inhabitants of the Venetian island Murano were making mirrors by applying an amalgam of mercury and tin to the back of a smooth sheet of glass.  Hundreds of years passed with other countries trying to imitate the Venetian process before Louis XIV convinced a group of Venetian glass makers to give up their secrets.  They were assassinated before the French could learn everything they needed to know.  However, what the French were able to learn resulted in Louis XIV’s famous Hall of Mirrors, built at Versailles in 1682.  The first glass plates for mirrors in England were made in 1673 at Lambeth, a district in Central London.

By the 1700s, the process reached beyond Venice, resulting "in such an abundance of metallically backed glass that mirrors became mere light catchers to enliven the household, prized as evidence of social standing.”  There also arose a difficulty in making the glass “even and flat” due to the silvering which was done through the mercury process.  The “heavy quicksilver” did not easily stay on the glass surface but would “fall off in patches.”  Over time, many of the mirrors made with this original silvering process appear to be discolored and opague.

From the introduction of the glass mirror, the industry and art of making frames for these “looking glasses” sprung up.  Cabinet makers were able to use their skills in a different way and most frames began to be made of wood.  This particular mirror in Wilton’s collection is a Chippendale mirror.  Chippendale mirrors range from 1750-1780 and a typical one has, “the base cut in graceful curves, while a broken arch, on which perched a gilded eagle with outspread wings surmounted the top.”  This mirror has a gilded phoenix which was a commonplace element in the English classical vocabulary.

Most mirrors were imported to the colonies from other countries, such as England or France, whereas in London looking glasses could be found in any and every room.  The Randolphs undoubtedly followed this trend and could afford to do so.  The May 5, 1815 inventory listed the house as having “1 large looking glass” in the Dining Room and “1 Looking Glass” in the Parlor as well as a “1 small looking glass” in the Master bedchamber.  Not surprised by the lasting appeal a mirror has, one historian expressed how “the flat mirror engenders a correspondingly ‘perfect’ image of the self, one that is transparent and knowable, stable and exterior, a vision not filtered through the perceptions of others.”  Mirrors continue to find their way into people’s homes today for this reason as well as their aesthetic appeal. The mirror possesses the ability of opening up and brightening a room with the depth and light it reflects. The Randolphs saw this and made elegant use of it at Wilton.

“Constitution Mirrors”. Internet Antique Gazette. 21 March 2013.
Cescinsky, Herbert and George Leland Hunter. English and American Furniture. Garden City
Publishing Company, Inc. Garden City: 1929.
Hummel, Charles F. A Winterthur guide to American Chippendale Furniture: Middle Atlantic
and Southern Colonies. Crown Publishers Inc. New York: 1976.
Lockwood, Luke Vincent. Colonial Furniture in America. 14 March 2013.
Northend, Mary H. House and Garden, Volume 16. “Old Looking glasses:
The Mirror’s evolution-comparatively modern types and their characteristics”. 21 March 2013
Mcelheny , Josiah.  “A Short History of the Glass Mirror”. Cabinet. Issue 14. Summer 2008. 21
March 2013. <>
Stanard, Mary Newton. Colonial People: It’s People and Customs. 21 March