(Originally published in the Winter 2014 newsletter)
Even if you are one of those (crazy) people who claim to “love” winter, you probably still have one complaint…it gets dark far too early. Fortunately, unlike our ancient ancestors, we no longer worry that the sun god is leaving and may not be coming back. Electric lighting provides an effective substitute for the missing hours of daylight. But the ability to turn a knob or flip a switch and brighten a room would have been unimaginable to the Founding Fathers … or anyone born before the 19th century. Until then, the availability of light controlled every aspect of human life, and winter was a time when people slept more, worked less and spent a great deal of time huddled by their fireplaces, not only for heat, but for light.
Early Americans did what they could to compensate for the lack of indoor lighting. They usually tried to situate buildings for maximum sun exposure, with as many windows as possible on the east and west sides. They painted interior walls white or used light colors to reflect as much daylight as possible.
When the sun went down, colonists who could afford them turned to rudimentary oil lamps or candles for artificial light. Most candles were made from tallow (animal fat) which smelled rancid and burned very quickly. Better quality candles were expensive and generally available only in wealthier homes. Regardless of the type of candle, the fireplace was used to light it. Matches as we know them didn’t exist until the mid-nineteenth-century.
Indoor lighting took a leap forward in around 1800 when Aime Argand, a chemist from Geneva, Switzerland introduced a new kind of oil lamp, the “Argand Lamp.” It employed a cylindrical wick and a glass tube chimney around the flame to direct the draft, make the flame stronger and make the lamp safer for carrying. This kind of oil lamp remained popular in the U.S. until the middle of the 19th century when kerosene lamps appeared on the scene.
Soon after, municipalities began to experiment with lighting streets with gas (mostly distilled from coal.) In 1816, Baltimore was the first American city to install gas streetlights. That same year, the home of coppersmith William Henry on Lombard Street in Philadelphia became the first private residence in the U.S. illuminated by gas.
The gas light era lasted for more than 60 years, but was then eclipsed by the success of Thomas Edison’s electric light bulb. By 1890, a number of U.S. cities had small electrical power stations, each powering a few city blocks. By 1930, the majority of people living in U.S. cities and towns had electricity, however only 10 percent of Americans who lived on farms and in rural areas had electric power. It was thanks to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal that the people in rural America could finally flip a switch and light their homes.
With no scientific explanation for the change of seasons, it’s little wonder that humans everywhere grew fearful as the days grew shorter and the sun grew dimmer; and across the globe, people developed elaborate rituals and festivals to encourage the sun god to return and bring back light and warmth to the earth.
The Romans marked the winter solstice with the feasts of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. Historians speculate that early Christians celebrated Jesus’s birth around those familiar holidays, although records indicate that 337 is the earliest possible date that Christmas was celebrated on December 25.
The popular European custom of keeping a Yule log burning during the longest nights of the year pre-dates the celebration of Christmas. It was part of “Juul,” a Scandinavian solstice celebration to honor the god Thor. English and French settlers brought the Yule log tradition with them when they colonized America.