No. 5037 Pewter candle holder with tray and ring made by Roswell Gleason’s factory.
The candlesticks shown here, made by Gleason Pewter and Silver-Plating establishment on Washington Street, north of Park Street, are in the collection of the Dorchester Historical Society.
From the depths of un-recorded history up to and through the mid-nineteenth century, lighting was provided mostly by the use of candles. When Gleason began his career in the first half of the century, candles were still the predominant means of lighting. Candles were an essential part of life until the development of oil lamps and their widespread distribution in the 19th century. Gleason’s candlesticks exhibit traditional designs.
The substance for candles was tallow rendered from fat of sheep or cattle. Although beeswax was sometimes used, it was usually too expensive for everyday use. Due to their composition, candles were likely to be eaten by mice, so candles were kept in a protective container. Late in the eighteenth century, spermaceti was introduced—the waxy fat from the head of the sperm whale. Candles made from spermaceti produced a bright steady flame with no odor or running, but were too expensive for ordinary people. In 1831 stearine candles came to market—these were made from animal and vegetable fat converted into soap that was then treated.
Whale Oil Lamps
The great demand for whale oil in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a result of its use as a lamp fuel. In 1830 the American whaling fleet brought in 106,800 barrels of sperm oil and 15,000 barrels of common whale oil (sperm oil from the heads of sperm whales; common whale oil from the rendered fat of many types of whales). By 1830 whale-oil burners had evolved into a threaded form. The base of the burner is a brass or tin disc, pressed into a saucer shape. The vertical part of the rim is threaded on the outside to screw into the collar of the font. There might be one or two wick tubes, depending on the model, ¼ to 3/8 inch in diameter. Usually they taper from bottom to top. The length of the wick tube projecting above the base is much less than that below. The upper part of the tube has a vertical slot, through which the wick can be raised or lowered by means of a little metal spike, the wick-pick, and the lower part is perforated to increase the area of contact between oil and wick [two flames close together produce more light than if widely spaced as a result of an increase in air draft when they are near].
Lamp Font Designs
Burning Fuel Lamps
As the price of whale oil rose in the mid-nineteenth century, other fuels were developed. Burning fluid was a mixture of high-proof alcohol and redistilled turpentine, a mixture produced a white, smokeless flame. Burning fluid, sometimes called camphene, was patented in 1830, and as production increased, prices fell, increasing its popularity. But it was the most dangerous lighting fuel ever to gain wide use due to its volatility. A news item from Brooklyn, May 23, 1853, read: LAMP.–BRIDGET McGINNISS, 13 years of age, a servant in the family of [ ] Randolph Lexon, Esq., No. 257 Bridge-street, died on Friday night about 10 o-clock, from the effects of burns received about 7 o-clock on the same evening, by the bursting of a camphene lamp, which she held in her hand at the time.
The most distinctive feature of the burning fuel lamp is the shape of the wick tubes. They extend about an inch and a half above the base plate and not at all below it, so as to keep the flame away from the font. The tubes are narrower than those of whale-oil burners, and have a distinct taper from bottom to top. This gives a tight fit, with less chance for vapor to escape and ignite. If there are two or more tubes, they diverge from base to top, because separate flames create less heat. Each tube has a deep metal cap,
usually attached to the base plate by a fine chain. This served as an extinguisher and prevented evaporation of the volatile fluid when the lamp was not in use. Two-wick burners are the most common, but burners with single, triple, quadruple and quintuple tubes are known. The burner base
plate screws into a threaded collar on the font, and there is no vapor vent.
When kerosene became popular in the second half of the century, other lamp designs were introduced, but by then Gleason had retired.