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The Tea Party, 1824, MFA Boston

On Saturday evening, we drove up to Old Sturbridge Village for their “Evening of Illumination” tour. The village is by no means as fancy as the house depicted at left, but the gentle quality of the candlelight captured by Henry Sargent reminds me of the evening. I took no photos, because I just wanted to enjoy the experience…and learn from it.

Candles used in New England were usually home made, dipped, and of tallow. (See here for one reference.) The Browns of Providence had a spermaceti candle manufactory, and people in cities and towns often bought candles–by the pound, not by the stick. Spermaceti supposedly burns brighter than beeswax or tallow, but the only spermaceti candles I know of are accessioned museum objects and will never be lit.

In thinking about upcoming programs at two different sites, I’ve been thinking about what it was like to live in the dark, and to work mostly within the sun’s hours, and then judiciously by candle light. Sharon Burnston says, “Sew by daylight, knit by candlelight,” and if you think about process, you can imagine that  in low light, even the fine thread of sock knitting is far more manageable than fine sewing.

Large fireplaces provided both heat and light, and candles are surprisingly bright. I suspect that an evening by a fireplace, reading aloud by candlelight while a friend or sibling knit, was pleasant enough in a wool gown, or with a shawl over muslin. The trip to bed would have been another matter, and getting up something else indeed.

It is also well to remember that class difference would have created comfort differences: a servant would have been colder getting up than the master, for the servant would rise in a cold room and be expected to light a fire in the master’s bedroom. Rural workers would also have risen in a cold room, to cold or frozen water.

These are some of the things I’m thinking about as I read and look and get ready for programs, and for winter.