Past Exhibitions


The Oysterponds Historical Society has a substantial collection of items related to the history of lighting – particularly lighting in the nineteenth century. There are also a few devices which most likely date from the late-eighteenth century. The exhibition begins with very early rush holders and a single betty lamp, and ends just when electricity takes hold and revolutionizes lighting. Nearly every type of lighting device used in Oysterponds during the nineteenth century can be seen in the exhibition.

Rush holders were made by local blacksmiths to burn rushes which were plentiful and available to everyone. Rushes would be collected, peeled, and dipped in grease (usually animal fat). When lit they produced a weak, dirty, and smelly form of lighting. Another early light was the betty lamp, a type dating back to ancient times. It had rudimentary support for a wick, but also burned animal fat and needed constant attention – all without providing satisfactory brightness.

Candles were the ubiquitous form of lighting for centuries. They were more effective, cleaner and far more pleasant to use than rushes or animal fat, but they were also more expensive. Holders for candles were made in every conceivable manner. A small selection from the collection – tall and short, plain and fancy – is on view here.

Exhibit Items

Advancements in lighting were introduced throughout the nineteenth century. Thousands of patents bear witness to this. As the century progressed the design of the burners, the shape of the wicks, and most significant the type of fuel, were constantly being improved. Beginning in the 1830s whale oil was the fuel of choice, and ushered in the great era of whaling. During the same period camphene, a by-product of turpentine, was used in lamps similar to whale oil lamps. But camphene was highly volatile and therefore dangerous to use. After the Civil War and the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, kerosene was the most important lamp fuel for decades. Later in the nineteenth century, permanent lighting fixtures in fashionable houses relied on gas, but electricity for all types of lighting became the standard as the twentieth century began.

You will see a great many lanterns in this exhibition. As lanterns are portable, and as people had to venture outside during the night and in all sorts of weather, they remained useful even after the invention of the electric light. Many of the lanterns on view made use of candles, but many others burned kerosene. One case shows lanterns specifically made for transportation: boat, rail, carriage, and bicycle. Two of the cases highlight later nineteenth-century kerosene lamps in their ornate Victorian glory. Be sure to look at the wonderful selection of late nineteenth-century lamps – particularly the hanging variety that are on permanent view on the first floor of this building.

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