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
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
What's in the Bag?
You need an Edge
Lighting up the Night
Keeping an Eye
on the Sky
What type of Primitive
Shelter is best for you?
Return to Living