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Lighting Through the Ages


Through the 1700s: candles are main lighting source

Early 1800s: whale oil lamps become common

1814: gas street lights installed in London

1827: invention of friction match

1853: kerosene lamps introduced in Germany

1879: Thomas Edison develops first practical electric light

1880: electric lights on Broadway in New York City

1930: flash bulbs for cameras invented

1937: fluorescent lights introduced at New York World's Fair

1990s: energy-saving lightbulbs available

Take a guess what this is-

This simple invention is a rushlight holder, a device New Englanders used in the 1600s as an alternative to a candle. The holder has "jaws" (like a clothespin) that hold the rush, a stiff grass that grows in a bog or meadow. The rush was stripped of its bark, soaked, dried, and then dipped in animal fat; it was sometimes called the poor man's candle.

Unlike a candle, the rushlight could not stand upright because it would burn too quickly. They had to be used with great care, because the light could easily fall out of the holder and even start a house fire. Candles were more often used by those who could afford them.

Here are some common expressions related to light—

"Can't hold a candle to it"
Before electricity, if someone had a task to do, he might need a helper to hold a candle to light the work. If the helper couldn't even hold the candle properly, he clearly was not as skilled as the person doing the work. The expression describes a person or thing that is not as good as someone or something else.

"In the limelight"
Limelight, created by burning a block of lime (a mineral found in the ground), produces an exceptionally bright light. In the early 1820s, limelight was commonly used to light the stage in theaters, despite the real danger of starting a fire. We use the phrase today to describe a person receiving a great deal of public attention.

"Burning the midnight oil"
Before electricity and electric lights, people used lamps that burned oil. When someone worked late into the night, it was said that he was "burning the midnight oil" in his lamp.

Ask your parents if they have ever been in a blackout or without electric light. How did it feel? What did they do? Write down their stories and send them to me at

Here are some puzzles about light—

Riddle: A black cat lies sleeping on the kitchen floor. No lights are working because of a power failure. The streetlights are not on and there is no moon. A burglar tiptoes into the room and heads straight toward the cat—but steps over her at the last moment. He is not carrying a flashlight, candle, or even a match. How does he see the cat?

Challenge: Now, here's another challenge. As you look through the Winter/Spring 2005 Historic New England magazine either her online or offline with the actual magazine, try to find all of the images shown in the grid to the left.

Answers: ( to view click here with your mouse button and pull down )
Puzzle Me This Riddle: It's daytime.
Puzzle Me This Challenge: Starting from upper left image...
In Magazine - back cover, pg 7, pg 18, pg 17, pg 1, pg 23, pg 14, pg 21, pg 3/cover
Online - pg 13, pg 3, pg 9, pg 8, pg 1, pg 11, pg 8, pg 10, pg 2

Lighting Through the Ages