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Side by Side: Lighting the Night

Today’s preference for light and safety created dozens of styles of “historic” outdoor lighting fixtures where none actually existed. Colonial-style homes and museums alike rely on fixtures invented in the 20th Century.

Image courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg.After twilight’s last gleaming, early America was a mighty dark place. People ventured into the night with only the dim beams of handheld lanterns—many with translucent panes of shaved bone—to help light their way. Villages and towns were pitch-black and the few burgeoning cities offered only the flickering glow of an occasional street light to relieve the unrelenting darkness.

Well into the 1800s, most American households burned only a couple of candles a night, and fewer had oil lamps to provide sparse lighting in central parts of the home. Lighting outside the home remained scant, coming from various styles of lanterns, frequently suspended on a hook near a doorway or in the barn, and sometimes from crude torches.

But wait. What about all those genuine early houses and the faithful reproduction dwellings with their brass and copper fixtures brightening doorways and radiant globes standing proudly on posts in front yards? What about our notable living-history museums with streets aglow and walkways illuminated by stately fixtures straight out of the 18th and early 19th Centuries? Surely colonial America could not have been all that dark.

Yes it was. Early exterior lighting is like the toilet. No toilets existed in early America, but in a sweeping concession to convenience and new plumbing technology, every period or reproduction house now has indoor plumbing. Likewise, our modern bias for nighttime illumination combined with safety factors has resulted in hard-wired electrical light fixtures adorning most exterior doorways, outbuildings, and yards of homes dating back even to the 1600s.

Few people today give it a second thought, but most early exterior lighting is the creation of several lighting manufacturers, along with the research talents of some leading curators, who have altered and adapted other period lighting styles to fit the outdoor needs of modern homeowners—in other words, to create old styles of lighting where none existed.


For nearly two centuries, the rudimentary, handheld lantern lit the night. Rural settlers made nighttime forays to their barns to care for livestock but otherwise were housebound by choice, thanks to the ubiquitous chamber pot. Urban dwellers venturing out for occasional after-dark social events carried smoking lanterns before them.

“The portable lantern was probably used in early America on those occasions when exterior lighting was needed, exclusive of the grand plantation houses where torches might be set out or held by servants when guests were expected or departing,” said historic lighting expert Roger W. Moss, who noted that in 1628 the Reverend Francis Higginson of Salem, Massachusetts, suggested that settlers on their way to the New World be sure to bring lanterns with them.

“It’s unlikely many permanent outdoor fixtures were used throughout the entirety of the 18th and 19th Centuries,” said Willie Graham, longtime curator of architecture at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. “Some people walked around with their own personal lanterns. A collapsible brass lantern with horn panes was discovered in the archaeological excavations at the Peyton Randolph site, for instance, and it seems likely that an occasional nail or hook sufficed for hanging a portable lantern when its routine use required.”

Tom Kelleher, curator of mechanical arts at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, concurred that the lantern was the prevalent form of early outdoor lighting. He cited text from The House Book, or a Manual of Domestic Economy, published in 1843:

“Every house should be provided with one or more lanterns to carry out of doors at night, or to take into a stable, barn, or any other place where an uncovered candle or lamp might be dangerous. Lanterns with glass sides are so easily cracked that we do not recommend them. They are much better when glazed with horn, or perforated all over with small holes. If they have (oil) lamps in them, care should be taken to trim and replenish these lamps daily, that the lantern may always be ready if wanted at night.”

The household manual goes on to warn concerning the use of candles in lanterns, “The piece of candle must not be very long or it will heat the top of the lantern so as to burn the fingers of the person that carries it.”


Over the years, lanterns took on various forms based on their intended functions—standard lanterns with assorted pane materials for domestic use, heavier gaoler’s and watchmen’s lanterns, nautical lanterns with shielded vents to deflect seawater seepage. Travelers eventually attached assorted lanterns to buggies, carriages, and stagecoaches, although nighttime travel remained rare well into the 1800s.

In some instances, wealth precipitated extraordinary efforts to keep the night at bay. “I’m reminded that in Charleston, South Carolina, perhaps as early as the late colonial period and certainly continuing through the early 19th Century, wrought-iron lamp posts were used on some grand houses and public buildings,” recalled Graham. “The Gibbes House, if I’m not mistaken, had a wrought-iron railing on its paired stairs leading to a deck in front of the main entrance door and had two lamps built into that railing flanking the deck. I’ve also seen a similar detail associated with wrought-iron fencing. But this is the exception, both for buildings in early Charleston and in American cities in general.”

Graham is right in calling it an exception. Through the mid-1800s, American homes had so little lighting that it is difficult today to imagine the dimness in which our ancestors functioned. In his book Lighting for Historic Buildings, Moss, executive director emeritus of The Athenaeum in Philadelphia, cites two household surveys, one of 767 households in Wethersfield, Connecticut, spanning the years 1630 to 1800, and a second survey of 90 homes in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, from 1800 to 1850:

“Of the 857 inventories examined, 319 listed no lighting devices at all—298 in the earlier survey, 21 in the later. While these are hardly scientific samples, they do suggest that early American households depended primarily on natural illumination—the flickering hearth fire, a smoking oil lamp, the occasional guttering candle or, if it became necessary to venture out in the night, a lantern with its vulnerable flame protected by panes of glass, flattened horn scraped to transparency, or decoratively pierced sheets of iron.”


While the colonial countryside remained dark after nightfall for another hundred years, American cities in the mid-1700s began experimenting with illuminating their streets and walkways—inventing fixtures that eventually had significant impact on all forms of exterior lighting throughout the country.

In some locales, it was the responsibility of the homeowner abutting the street to provide lighting, either legislated, as in New York around 1700 when the city required residents to maintain lights in their street-front windows, or advised, as mentioned in The House Book or a Manual of Domestic Economy: “In houses that stand somewhat back from the street, with a little garden in front, it is well (particularly when visitors are expected) to place a lamp on a shelf fixed for the purpose, in the fan-light over the front door. This will light the guests on their way from the gate to the doorstep, and is a great convenience on a dark or wet night. Most of the best houses have permanent lamps at the foot of the door-steps.”

Street lighting as we understand it today got an early start when in 1417 London’s mayor, Sir Henry Barton, ordered candle-burning lanterns to be suspended along some streets during the winter months. During a trip there in 1757, Philadelphia’s postmaster, Benjamin Franklin, studied London’s dingy street lights and figured he could do better.

Franklin put his inventive genius to work designing a new style of lamp, adding a funnel at the top and air vents in the bottom so smoke could quickly escape. “By this means,” he wrote, “they were kept clean, and did not grow dark in a few hours, as the London lamps do, but continued bright until morning.” Franklin’s invention earned him the reputation as father of the American street light.

Early gaslight fuel is commonly confused with natural gas. In fact, early illuminating gas came from bituminous coal, which was heated and the resulting hydrocarbons filtered to remove impurities. Filtering was a critical stage in gas production, accomplished at a local “gas works,” because dirty gas gave off weak light and a sickening, noxious odor.

Baltimore in 1816 authorized the first municipal gas street light system, which began operating February 7, 1817. Philadelphia—although it had experimented with some gas street lights as early as 1796—did not actually charter a gas company until 1835, long after similar companies had been formed in Boston and New York.


Street lights and exterior lighting in general followed much more slowly in America’s smaller towns and villages. For example, the September 12, 1797, records of the Aufsher Collegium at the Moravian settlement in Old Salem, North Carolina, state: “For the present time we are going to erect only one lantern, that is going to light the street, because we can determine afterward with more knowledge where the second one will have to be set up.”

John Larson, vice president for restoration at Old Salem Museums & Garden, added, “We have little reference to exterior lights on individual homes, such as lamp posts in the yard. During our period (dating from about 1750) we would have had mostly candles. On into the 19th Century we would have seen fish-oil lamps, and in 1859 gas lamps begin to be installed. I would expect very little, if any, exterior light in rural settings unless it was a special occasion.”

Kelleher said the town of Sturbridge got its first street light system in the early 1900s. Likewise, William Flynt, architectural conservator at Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts, reported that Deerfield installed oil street lights in 1896 and then replaced them with electric versions in 1908.

Municipalities piped gas into factories and commercial and public buildings, but made no provisions for home installation until the mid-1800s, when most of the filtering problems had been remedied. Soon gas replaced candles and oil as the lighting fuel in many Victorian homes.

“For most American cities, gas lighting was not installed until the third quarter of the 19th Century, but once installed it did transform the appearance and nighttime viability of towns,” said Graham. “In contrast, the countryside remained, in general, dark.”


America entered the late 19th Century with varied levels of nighttime illumination. Farm and village dwellings, still nearly 70 percent of the country, remained dimly lit by candles, oil, and kerosene fixtures, while gas fixtures in cities brightened many Victorian homes and other buildings.

Then, with the Centennial of 1876, the nation turned its focus on the past in celebration of the country’s remarkable founders, traditional values, and the simplicity of days gone by. The Colonial Revival lasted several decades—by 1920 featuring countless re-creations of the colonial style in both new and remodeled homes—with vestiges continuing to this day.

But one area in which the colonial style fell short was lighting. By the early 20th Century, with its new electric lighting, people wanted contemporary levels of illumination inside and outside their homes for comfort, convenience, and safety. Inside the home, period-style fixtures—a wide array of authentically reproduced sconces, lanterns, and chandeliers often fitted or retrofitted with little electric “flame” bulbs and wired into the home’s electrical system—satisfied this desire.

Lighting the home’s exterior posed a problem. There simply weren’t any authentic lighting fixtures that had been affixed to colonial exterior doorways and walls or freestanding in yards. The solution, explained Moss, was, “Owners looking for ‘old time’ lighting settled on carriage lights, railroad lanterns, as well as portable lanterns and even wired sconces—anything that could be ‘lighted’ by an electric wire and, perhaps, provided shelter for the lamp from the elements.”

Kelleher agreed. “What exterior lamps I’ve seen on many Colonial Revival homes seem to be electrified versions of coach lamps or hand lanterns creatively fixed to the buildings, reflecting the flavor of the past rather than authentic historic practice.”

The lack of authentic period exterior lighting may have perplexed some homeowners enthusiastic about Colonial Revival and similar period decorating styles, but it was a much greater challenge for the country’s leading museums whose purpose is to accurately reflect early America. They have been compelled to install adequate exterior lighting, usually where none existed historically, to ensure visitor safety and convenience, to extend the length of the visitor day for nighttime events, and even to support signage. The case of Colonial Williamsburg is typical of how museums tackled the problem.

“In the case of Williamsburg, the need for lighting, indoors and out, also brought the requirement that it should have a ‘colonial’ appearance,” explained Graham. “Some 18th- and early-19th-Century indoor lighting fixtures were reproduced for both interior and exterior use. Street lighting to make the town modern and safe was done by giving a colonial feel to lamp posts that largely have a 19th-Century origin in this country. These fixtures helped flesh out the vocabulary that the Colonial Revival architects and designers relied upon for their new adaptation.”

Adaptation is the operative word here.

Christopher Burda, president of Period Lighting Fixtures in Clarksburg, Massachusetts, has more personal, hands-on involvement in creating contemporary versions of authentic lighting than any other lighting manufacturer in America. “Take, for instance, the lights that are in place in Colonial Williamsburg,” he said. “People walk around those streets and see those buildings with all of those lanterns outside and they’re thinking, ‘This is 1700 historic Williamsburg so these must be 1700s lanterns.’ And they’re not.

“All of those lanterns were really placed there in the early 1900s when they started to redo all the buildings at Williamsburg,” he continued. “So those lanterns you see on the exteriors are not representational of the buildings’ true age. I don’t think everybody knows that. The lights down there are nowhere near accurate—inside the buildings, yes, with some of the chandeliers and certainly a lot of the sconces—but the exterior lanterns, not at all. This is not to say that they aren’t wonderful designs.”


An enormous opportunity presented itself to America’s lighting manufacturers in the first half of the 20th Century: To develop period-style lighting satisfying the popularity of early American home décor, or at least that décor as viewed through the prism of the Colonial Revival movement.

Lanterns, sconces, candleholders, chandeliers, and oil lamps that had survived for two hundred years determined the style of interior fixtures. The real scramble was for exterior fixtures. Manufacturers immediately grabbed styles of early lighting already associated with the night. Watchmen’s lanterns, carriage lamps, ship’s lanterns, and street lights—especially street lights—all were either enlarged or shrunk, often converted to weather-resistant metals in artificial verdigris or “wrought-iron” black, their shapes modified so they could be attached to exterior walls or freestanding poles, and new tubing installed to hold electrical wiring and still meet Underwriters Laboratories (UL) requirements. In other words, they created outdoor lighting that functioned and looked, for the most part, to be authentic.

In the years since, the designs of “colonial” exterior fixtures have come from several sources.

Heritage Lanterns is one of the country’s oldest manufacturers of lighting based on early styles. Karla Gustafson is head of sales and marketing at the company in Yarmouth, Maine, where nine artisans create an extensive line of handcrafted lights. She noted that Heritage Lanterns began more than fifty years ago in Boston and moved to Yarmouth in the 1970s. When asked about the designs in the company’s line, she said, “There have been several owners and their designs have been passed down from owner to owner through the years.”

Josiah R. Coppersmythe of Harwich, Massachusetts, has one of the largest catalogs of early lighting fixtures, some handcrafted by Coppersmythe and the rest by other manufacturers for whom Coppersmythe is a distributor. “The original designs from our shop came from the New England area, a lot from Old Sturbridge Village and the lights we saw there,” said Coppersmythe owner Karen Thompson. “You know, if I’m around and about and I see a light that has beautiful proportions, I’m likely to draw it and measure it and then have it made because it really looks good—it’s classic and it’s elegant and it’s right for the space.”

Spotting and then copying existing styles of exterior lights certainly is faster and cheaper than the extensive redesign work that occurred in the early 20th Century, and it’s made all the easier by public-domain laws.

“A lot of this early style of lighting is now in the public domain,” said Burda. “For instance, if you had an authentic piece hanging on your front porch, I could drive by your house, take a picture of it and come back here, have it made and sell it. And you wouldn’t be allowed to come after me for royalties on the piece because it’s in the public domain.”

Many of today’s early lighting companies do custom work for their clients, who provide photos or drawings of lights they want adapted for their homes. An example is Thomas Linebaugh, whose one-man operation in Abbottstown, Pennsylvania, is called Tel-Tin. A skilled coppersmith since 1999, he specializes in custom work based on street light designs. “I do a lot of craft shows and people either come to a show and order a light that strikes their fancy—most of my lights are patterned after old city street lights in my area—or a lot of times, people bring photos of old street lights,” he said. “I don’t need the physical light, only a photo and an idea of the size they want.”

Heritage Metalworks in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, bases many of its designs on the antiques in Winterthur’s collection under the company’s licensing agreement with the museum. “That means we can go in and copy anything in their museum that’s in metal,” said Matt White, manager of development and production. The company has produced chandeliers for Winterthur’s outdoor spaces and is now working on a line of exterior sconces. The firm is also expanding its line to include pure iron lanterns—“true wrought iron,” White said—for exterior fixtures using metal imported from England.

An even easier way for a manufacturer to obtain a new design of old lighting is to swipe it from a competitor’s catalog. Burda said he has seen several of his company’s designs show up in other catalogs. “Sure I’ve seen the same fixtures in their catalogs because they got the designs from our catalog. I mean, all’s fair in the business game and there are a lot of people out there making fixtures, and the strong will survive. We believe the best defense is a strong offense.”

Burda’s offense has been his company’s long-standing licensing relationships with Historic Deerfield, Old Sturbridge Village, and for a while Colonial Williamsburg. Under those agreements, Burda has been given access to the museums’ archives—“sometimes underground, sometimes in barns, the archives that aren’t open to the public”—where he has discovered vintage fixtures suitable for re-creating and selling.

“I bring the fixture back to our shop, where we completely duplicate it,” Burda explained. “Then it goes back to their board of trustees and the curators, who tell us how exact it is or what they would like to see changed. In the end, you normally get one of two designations: ‘reproduction’ status, which means it’s exactly as it was, or ‘adaptation.’ Usually you get the ‘adaptation’ listing because of what we have to do to conform to UL rules when we wire the light.”

Licensing agreements with museums have enabled Period Lighting Fixtures and Heritage Metalworks to create a number of new, yet authentic, designs for early-style fixtures. Such arrangements have been especially valuable for the entire industry because there aren’t many remaining fixtures dating back to 18th- or 19th-Century America to be duplicated.

“You’ve got to remember that most of the lanterns made back then were tin and steel and they’re rusted and gone,” Burda said. “True 1700s exterior fixtures are few and far between. That’s why most manufacturers have created their designs from pictures, because nobody can get their hands on the originals. We actually have a few here that are dated. They’re made of steel, and they’re sitting in a room upstairs because they’re rusting and falling apart.” t

Click here for the addresses of the above artists and other source material.

This story was abridged from the February 2008 issue of Early American Life magazine.

Copyright © 2008 Firelands Media Group LLC. All rights reserved.

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Oregon writer Greg LeFever is a contributing editor to Early American Life.