OT: American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750-1865

“American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750-1865,” by Jeremy Zallen, U North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2019. This 356-page hardback tells of artificial light before the electric light. Zallen especially addresses the common myth that kerosene replaced whale oil in lamps. Here he includes camphene burning fluid, gas lights, and matches as well as the story of coal oil. In the spirit of critical race theory, he especially tells of industrial slavery in turpentine and coal mining (for gas lighting) and child labor in the manufacture of matches. He also notes that lighting was often used by women sewing textiles at home by hand as piece work. Lighting allowed them to work long hours.

David Nye’s “Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940” tells of the impact of Edison’s incandescent light bulb and the changes brought by electricity. Zallen’s book fills in lighting by fire.

The book begins with whale oil. Whaling was a New England business, especially Nantucket and Newport, RI. In the nineteenth century, whaling was the third most valuable industry in Massachusetts–after cotton and shoes and fifth largest in the US. Ships went to sea for years traveling around Cape Horn into the Pacific. Whales were processed on board. A typical 2 yr voyage produced 3000 barrels of whale oil. At the time, whale oil was the preferred lamp fuel. It was burned in street lamps and lighthouses as well as homes and businesses. Sugar cane for sugar was raised in the Caribbean. Processing required boiling the cane juice continuously. Slaves provided the labor to work long hours; whale oil provided the lighting to work at night. As whales were depleted, whale oil became more costly. About 1840, alternative fuels were in use. Modified lamp designs were used for these fuels.

Camphene was one of the burning fluids. It was a blend of turpentine and grain alcohol–two of the available flammable liquids before the arrival of petroleum and coal oil. The alcohol was usually distilled from whiskey. The book tells in detail how turpentine (and rosin) are produced as navel stores. Pine tress especially in North Carolina were tapped for sap which was doubly distilled to make turpentine and rosin (aka resin)–hence the name tar heels The trees were scored with a ledge called a “box” to collect the sap. Large numbers of slaves were used to score the trees, collect and process the sap. Zallen describes this as industrial slavery–different from the more common vision of slaves in agriculture. By the 1840s camphene became the dominant lamp fuel in the US.

Camphene was flammable and could explode. Numerous fires were reported. It could easily start a fire when a lamp was tipped over. The pine trees of North Carolina were well suited to camphene production. The business also provided additional need for slaves as production expanded. Backwoods became more productive. Slaves were often leased in winter when agriculture was slower. The value of many was protected by life insurance. Wilmington, NC became a center of the camphene industry. In cities, gaslighting was also available, but used by the upper classes. Camphene was the fuel of the average family.

A chapter describes gas lighting. Gas lights were first developed in Britain but were well established in the US by the 1840s. Zallen says little more, but the invention is usually attributed to William Murdock of Bolton & Watt, the firm that made James Watt’s steam engines from 1776. He first lit his own home in 1792. Baltimore was first to install gas lights in the US from 1816.

Gas was manufactured from coal, especially from bituminous coal. The anthracite mined in Eastern Pennsylvania was not suitable. Virginia’s mines supplied most of the coal on the east coast–Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Brooklyn, Newark, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah. Some was imported from Britain but Virginia coal was cheaper. Slaves were an essential part of coal mining in Virginia. White miners worked in the mines and were paid piece rates for the coal they loaded. Slaves did the non-paying labor especially timbering and caring for the mules. The largest mine reported 140 to 187 slaves. In 1855, an explosion report indicated 110 white miners, 26 slaves owned by the company or owners and 16 leased slaves.

Virginia mines were gassy. Explosions from “fire damp” were too common. Miners lights (burning whale oil) were protected with screens to prevent ignition of the gas, but they were not always effective.

Large cast iron tanks called gasometers were used to hold gas. The tank in New Orleans held 120,000 gallons. Gas is produced by heating coal in iron retorts. The gas passes through water and then lime to remove sulfur and soot, and then to gas holding tanks. All manual labor was done by slaves. The Union army took over New Orleans in May, 1862. They took control of the gas plant and continued to operate it with slaves. In 1855, Philadelphia had the largest gas works. Its gas was made from coal and rosin in retorts heated by coke and wood. In Boston tin pipe brought the gas from the main to the gaslight. Gas leaks and gas explosions were reported. Gas street lights were essential in upscale areas. They contributed to law and order. Some plants made their own gas. The day watchman operated the gas equipment.

Cincinnati was known as porkopolis. In winter months it was a major butcherer of hogs from throughout the region. Hogs were allowed to forage in summer, then fattened in autumn and driven to market. Grain from whiskey distilleries was often fed to hogs. The lard was used for soap and for candles. Proctor & Gamble was the major processor. Pork fat is rendered to lard by cooking. The lard is pressed to remove lard oil, used as a lubricant and lamp fuel. Treatment with lye makes soap. Acidification with sulfuric acid results in a waxy solid known as stearine. It is ideal for candle making.
In Kentucky the hogs were driven to market by slaves. Passes issued for the slaves sometimes allowed them to escape–presumably by the Underground Railroad. Hogs could only travel four to ten miles per day. Hog stands provided resting places for the hogs and their drivers along the route. The arrival of railroads in the 1840s extended the range and allowed the number of hogs processed to continue to increase. Coopers was an important part of the business. They made barrels for both salt pork and lard.

Candles were used for lighting as was lard oil. The book provides little on the design of lard oil lamps. Sources report they produced a characteristic odor. An extrusion process was developed to make candles continuously and in high volume. The best candles used braided cotton wicks and were ideally made with beeswax. Pioneers made “tapers” by dipping the wicks repeatedly in melted tallow.

Chicago became a processor of beef somewhat later. It made major use of railroads and refrigeration (with ice) to allow year round processing.

Matches were an important technology that made fire readily available. Before matches, one made fire with a flint and tender or borrowed from a neighbor. White phosphorus was a key ingredient. It inflames in air. Lucifer matches were pine sticks treated with sulfur and then dipped in a paste of potassium chlorate and white phosphorus. In modern times phosphate rock is converted to white phosphorus in an electric furnace equipped with a carbon electrode. The carbon reduces the phosphate to phosphorus which distills and is trapped in water. Ferrosilicon, used in steel making, is a by-product. Originally phosphorus was isolated from urine or later from phosphate rock by heating in a retort with sand and charcoal. Bones from meat packing, from buffalo hunting, or sometimes stolen from cemeteries were a source of calcium phosphate. Bones from cattle in Brazil and Uruguay were shipped to Britain for processing. There Albright & Wilson became a major producer of phosphorus. It was molded into sticks for packaging.

Matches were made by children. The sticks were placed in a frame and then dipped in a paste to create the match heads. The matches were packed in boxes assembled as piecework with a sandpaper surface for striking. The phosphorus was toxic resulting in phosyjaw. Workers glowed in the dark. And had a characteristic odor. Safety matches using less toxic red phosphorus were developed later. Children sold matches on the streets of New York.

Matches were sometimes used as booby traps. In a bale of cotton, matches would cause a fire when processed. They were forbidden on railroads. Fires from children playing with matches or disgruntled tenants soon followed.

A chapter describes the development of coal oil. The Kanawha River Valley in western Virginia had readily accessible channel coal suitable for production of coal oil. Glaciers had gouged out valleys revealing the coal layers. They could be mined without sh@ft mines. Transportation was an issue. Virginia was slow to develop railroads. Conversion to coal oil made transportation more practical. In the 1850’s fractional distillation produced kerosene suitable as a lamp fuel to compete with camphene.

The story began with salt mines. Wells were drilled for salt and sometimes found oil. Oil slicks were also known on the river. The discovery of oil in Titusville, PA in 1859, came later. Coal oil was first. In 1840, the Kanawha produced 3MM bushels of salt; in the 1850s coal production was more than double that of eastern Virginia. In 1855, a study found a ton of Kanawha coal produced 75 gallons of liquid which processed into 25 gal of lamp oil and 8 gal of lubricating oil plus other materials. By 1857, production was 200 gal of oil per day, expanding to 3000 gal per day. The market price in NYC was $0.60/gal. For coal oil, the coal was heated to 800 deg, about half that used in gas plants. The Dietz burner, a lamp for kerosene, was soon developed. By 1860, over 30 refineries made 22,750 gal of kerosene oil per day. Initially free labor was used, but they soon switched to slaves. Parkersburg, VA became the main riverport for coal oil. When the Union army took over the region in 1863, Confederate rebels destroyed the oil wells.

In 1862, US lighthouses switched from whale oil to lard oil, the last of the whale oil business.

Sources indicate kerosene overtook camphene as the preferred lamp fuel during the Civil War when Congress imposed a tax on alcohol that made it no longer competitive. Zallen reports that after Ft Sumpter, turpentine producers were cut off from major markets. Emancipation left them without manpower to collect and process turpentine. The camps were flammable. Many were burned in Sherman’s march from Savannah to Goldsboro, NC. For meat packers in Cincinnati and Chicago, the war resulted in increased demand to feed soldiers. Armour was the major producer in Chicago. Hog lights experienced a major gain in 1861.

Kerosene too had reports of lamp fires. Retailers were accused of adulterating the kerosene they sold with more flammable materials. Or refiners cut corners and failed to remove benzole and naphtha from the product. In the 1870s, Underwriters reported ten thousand lamp explosions and five to six thousand deaths per year from kerosene fires. Spring cleaning was a ritual that came from the soot from wood and coal burning stoves as well as lamps and candles that created layers of grime.

This is a detailed telling of the story of lighting by flame. It is thoroughly researched and fills in many details. It also reveals the extent of industrial slavery and something of child labor and women doing piece work. References, index, photos, maps.