A Living History Skills series by Colonel Jerry Tubbs

Since the dawn of man, one of his greatest fears was the dark. Because of his fear of the night, man has invited many ingenious was to illuminate the dark. Lighting the dark was a problem faced by the colonist of Texas, especially those inland away from the coast.

Although most of the re-enactors I know have established ways to light their camps, I thought this would still be a subject that some might find interesting. Let's examine what was available and used by the colonist.

People of meager means used what nature had to offer. If they lived near a source of water, which most did, the use of Rush stems helped to light up a room along with the light given off by the fireplace. These stems were held in pliers looking holder that had a counter weight shaped handle. The Rush did not provide much more light than a single candle and burned at an extremely fast rate. Because of this, a supply of stems was gathered on a daily basis for the evening's use.

I cannot document whether the colonist made this type of candle, but one could assume that they might have done this until a better life was achieved. A very efficient lamp for light and a low heat source can be made quickly in the most primitive situations if one has the fat of an animal available. Ball up what you have available to about the size of a fist. This basically will be your candle. A wick can be made from any plant fiber or twisted from a strip of cotton garment. Cordage may also be made from bark fibers, grasses or any material able to wick the melted fat into it. The diameter of the wick can be as large as one desires, just remember; a large wick burns brighter but also burns faster. Melt a small amount of fat over a fire then pour into a container and soak the wick thoroughly. Form the ball firmly around the wick and you are ready. Remember to set the "candle" on a fireproof surface to catch the fat as it melts. As it burns and melts it will render itself, the cracklings settling, the pure fat rising. The wick will eventually drown in the melted fat so try to keep the burning portion out of the pool. Have a second candle handy to light while the first cools.

If there is one thing Texas had plenty of besides mesquitos was honeybees. Wild hives were to be found just about anywhere. The colonist used the honey from these hives to not only sweeten their food and drinks, but also used a by-product of the hive. That product being beeswax. This raw wax was melted over a low heat and then strained to remove any impurities or simply used as is. Candles were then produced by one of two methods. One method, and the simplest, was to pour the melted wax into a candle mold prepared with a wick stretched into the center of the mold. Tin molds were generally owned by the wealthier families, while the less fortunate use cane for their molds. The cane was cut between the joints and then split in half to aid in removing the candle after it cooled. The second method, and the longest to do, was to dip pre-waxed wicks into a deep pot containing melted wax. After dipping, the wax was allowed to cool while other wicks were having the same done to them. This process was repeated many times until the candle reached the desired width usually no more than 7/8" in diameter. The length of the wick or the depth of the pot determined how long the candle would be. Depending on the size of the pot used, several candles could be dipped at a time. To help keep the wicks straight, a small weight was sometimes added to the end and removed after completion of the candle or the candle was straighten by using fingers while still warm. Rolling the new candles between two flat boards was also employed to help straighten the candles and make the sides smooth. If there were not enough beeswax available, rendered animal fat would have been added to the beeswax. This made the candle softer creating a storage problem since the candles would stick together.

Many of us are guilty; myself included, of using "Dietz" Western style lanterns in our camps. Kerosene lanterns did not appear until around the middle of the 19th century. Until the introduction of kerosene, whale oil was the principle fuel being used in oil burning lamps. Hurricane lamps would have been scarce among the typical colonist but almost certainly would have been brought to Texas by the wealthy Plantation owners. They brought to the colonies the very best they had in the U.S. and these lamps would have been included with other personal items. These whale oil lamps were made of a glass base that held the oil and wick with a glass globe mounted on top not much different than those manufactured today to be used with refined lamp oil.

If you have Internet capabilities, I suggest you do a word search on "Whale Oil". There are many companies that still manufacture whale oil lamps and whale oil products. Purchasing one of these antique style lamps would add to the authenticity of your camp if you are portraying a person or family of wealth. As for the "western style" lantern, I suggest keeping them hidden until the evening and brought out for use only after the public has left for the day.

I find nothing more relaxing come the evening than to look out and see the soft glow of candles around the camp. To watch the shadowy outline of someone moving about in their tent or a friendly face lit up by a fire while leaning over a pit cooking supper, can not help but conjure up images of the past. Knowing that I have followed closely in the footsteps of our forefathers brings me great pride and personal satisfaction. I hope the same for you.

Creating a Character

Is That Gun Real?

What's in the Bag?

You need an Edge

What's Cooking?

Lighting up the Night

Keeping an Eye on the Sky

Getting Started

Then & Now

What type of Primitive Shelter is best for you?


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