The light fantastic

In last week's blog post, we talked about the use of light in Christchurch’s city streets and public spaces, from oil lamps to gas lights to electricity in the early 20th century. This week, we step out of the street and through the door into the house, where 19th century residents harnessed everything from naked flame to caged lightning (their words, not mine) to illuminate their daily lives. In the first years of European settlement, unsurprisingly, lighting options were limited. Setters in the 1850s and early 1860s would have relied exclusively on candles and kerosene for lighting in the home. These had the advantage of being cheap, easy and portable. They also had the disadvantage of being smoky, dim, sometimes odorous and prone to setting things on fire. In a settlement largely constructed from timber, the last of these was definitely a concern.

Candles and kerosene or oil lamps weren’t just used because of a lack of alternative options, however. Even after the introduction of gas lighting into homes later in the 19th century, candles and lamps continued to be a popular method of illuminating the room, so to speak, with contemporary newspapers advertising their use well into the 20th century (Ashburton Guardian 12/05/1900: 3, Star 12/09/1896: 4). In truth, candle light is probably the form of household lighting for which we have the most archaeological evidence, in the form of candle sticks, chamber sticks and candle snuffers. Most households are likely to have had several candle sticks and/or chamber sticks, the flat circular candle holders with a handle and inbuilt snuffer holder for ease of carrying (presumably into the bedchamber, hence the name).

Candle sticks and a candle snuffer. Candle snuffers would often rest on the cone of chamber sticks (see picture below) for ease of access. Image: J. Garland.

We’ve talked about the types of candles available to consumers before on the blog, from cheap tallow candles to spermaceti (or, as they are hilariously referred to sometimes, sperm candles) and stearine candles, advertised for their superior quality and bright light. The amount of light provided from each of these varied, as one would expect, but even the best stearine candle was limited in the amount of illumination that it could provide. Stearine candles were, however, the ones used as a measurement of candle power against new light forms like burning magnesium. Lights could be anything from 15-20 candle power (basic lamps) to bright light house beacons with candle power measured in the hundreds of thousands.

Advertisement for prize medal spermacetti and stearine candles from the

Candles, like the candle sticks and chamber sticks in which they were displayed, also came in a variety of forms, with some attention paid to appearance. For example, one advertisement offers “plain, fluted or coloured piano and bedroom candles”, suggesting that different candles may have been used in different – perhaps public and private – parts of the house. Similarly, the candlesticks we’ve found have been both decorated and undecorated, in everything from brass to porcelain to plain old refined earthenware. In this way, as with almost every other object we use in our lives, the provision of artificial light becomes another avenue for the expression of style and status and taste within the home (as is still the case today, from modern industrial chic fittings to terrible awful 1970 glass lamp shades).

Ceramic chamber sticks or chamber candle sticks. Note the cone for the snuffer and, although they're all roughly the same shape, the differing decoration. Image: J. Garland.

The same thing is apparent with oil and kerosene lamps.  While we tend to only find the plainer lamps in the archaeological record, if we find them at all (lamp glass is thin and fragile and usually in tiny pieces by the time it gets to us), a variety of elaborate casings were available to discerning consumers. Kerosene and oil lamps, as I’m sure many of you are aware, operated by burning fuel, usually stored in a burner at the base of the lamp, through the means of a wick, either an upright or flat wick or a circular rolled wick (also known as the Argand lamp), aided by a draught from the glass chimney casing.

Both kerosene lamps and candles were used in hanging lamps, chandeliers and light fittings as well as the portable lamps and holders that we commonly find in the archaeological record.  In fact, archaeological evidence for the more elaborate lights and light fittings is scarce. I think this is probably because they were part of the furnishings of a house and a) less likely to have been broken or damaged than portable lights and b) more likely to have been refitted for gas and/or electricity later on (although we also don’t find many original light fittings in extant 19th century buildings today).

A 'finger' lamp found on a site in central Christchurch and an advertisement showing the selection of lamps available to the consumer. This is the base of a kerosene lamp that would have looked a bit like this when complete.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, gas began to be used for lighting in Christchurch in the 1860s. The Christchurch Gas Company was formed in 1862, by which point “the city of Christchurch [had] attained such dimensions and density that it appears capable of supporting a Gas Factory.” The company was formed with the purpose of lighting the city, and the advantages of gas as “the cheapest and safest means of illumination yet offered to the public” were emphasised, particularly in comparison to the cost of oil and candles (Press 22/11/1862: 6). Works were carried out throughout 1863 and 1864 and by November 1864, they were giving notice that gas would be supplied to consumers by early December, aided by the work of Mr Edward Reece, who would “furnish the internal fittings.” The first use of gas lighting in a building appears to have been in late December 1864, when Coker’s Hotel, J. G. Ruddenklau’s City Hotel and a few other buildings braved “the new acquisition” (New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Strait Guardian 28/12/1864: 3).

Notice of the first use of gas lighting in buildings in Christchurch, given in December 1864. Image:

By the 1870s and 1880s, many people were lighting their rooms with gas, piped through a meter from the mains laid down under the roads (the connection initially paid for by the Christchurch Gas Company). Public buildings were also outfitted with gas pipes and lamps, although kerosene also seems to have maintained a tenacious hold in some places: the Canterbury Provincial Chambers, although fitted with gas pipes, were still being lit with kerosene in November 1865, much to the outrage of one letter-writing citizen in the local newspaper. Interestingly, gas lighting in domestic residences is another thing that’s under-represented in the archaeological record, likely for the same reasons as the fixed oil and candle light fittings are missing. In fact, sometimes we only find indirect evidence of it, through the presence of associated architectural features like gas vents in ceilings.

Archaeological evidence for gas lighting in buildings. Top: a ceiling vent in a 19th century house. Below: one of the gas light fittings from the Canterbury Provincial Chambers. Image: F. Bradley, L. Tremlett.

Eventually gas lamps were surpassed by the “superior” electric light towards the turn of the century. By the 1910s, houses were being advertised with electric lights as a selling point, although, many homes in Christchurch (and New Zealand) continued to be lit with gas lighting until well into the 20th century. This seems to have the result of a few issues. For one, electricity was expensive, especially at the beginning, and gas was the easier and cheaper option. For another, people in the 19th century had become used to portable, easy, lights in the home and – early on, in the 1880s – electricity was neither of those things. At least one enterprising swindler took advantage of this, advertising “portable electric lamps” for the home in the mid-1880s that sounded an awful lot like oil lamps, described modestly as a “most important invention that will bring about a complete revolution in all branches of lighting” (Thames Star 26/11/1885: 1). The scheme was soon unmasked as “an unmitigated fraud and swindle” (Thames Advertiser 10/02/1886: 3).

Advertisement for the Norman Electric Company Portable light (left) and a company offering installation of electric lights in the early 20th century. Image:

It brings up an interesting point though, this emphasis on the portability of light. If there’s anything that stands out to me from the progress of lighting in Christchurch, especially in the home, it’s that shift from artificial light as something personal – that people lit themselves, candle by candle or lamp by lamp, and carried with them – to something that is a fixture of the surroundings, no longer carried with a person, but always there to be switched on (as it is today).

Looking back at last week’s post, there’s also a contrast to be explored between the lighting of the public spaces of the city and the use and perception of light in the private spaces of the home, some of it to do with that same issue of portability. For the city as a community, lighting in public spaces was a question of safety and convenience, a response to the dangers of the dark, as well as a matter of civic pride and a certain standard of civilised living. The fixed street lamps, city wide gas provision, the requirement for lighting outside hotels and early attempts to adopt electricity all bear witness to this. Those same themes of pride and status are evident in the use of light in private homes, from just the ability to provide light after dark to the quality and style of lights used. The lighting of our homes and personal spaces, though, seems to me more of a convenient luxury than a mitigation of danger (although there’s an element of that as well), even in the 19th century. It is what allowed people then – and now - to live their lives outside of the constraints of sunrise and sunset, to essentially manufacture more time from the day.

Jessie Garland


Ashburton Guardian. [online] Available at

New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Strait Guardian. [online] Available at

Press. [online] Available at

Star. [online] Available at

Thames Advertiser. [online] Available at

Thames Star. [online] Available at