Light is a subject near and dear to my heart, and important to take into consideration when writing fiction set in the past.
The fact is that people in the past simply saw the world differently than we do because of light. Even daylight was different, without all the pollutants in the air, and the night sky shone so brilliantly with stars that we must go to very remote places on our planet to catch even a glimpse of what they saw. And see things, they did: comets and shooting stars. Medieval writings abound with mentions of the things they saw in the night sky, usually interpreted as portents for evil things to come.
Nightfall was more absolute—even in the upper classes, who could afford artificial light in the form of candles and oil lamps and (Victorians) gas lighting, the quality of the light in no way approached what we enjoy today. And moonlight was more important—when the moon waned, people up to no good such as thieves and smugglers were out and about. Conversely, ladies planned social events on nights when the moon was full. If you have a ball or a soirée in your book, set it on nights when moonlight is strongest. And when the moonlight wasn’t strongest, give your character a torch boy (a person—often a child—with a lantern, who hired out their light to those who could afford it) to light the way. Though often these torch boys worked in concert with thieves and cutthroats, so there’s that complication to take into consideration.
Needless to say, artificial light was hugely different, but people of the past came up with ways of dealing with it. Candle making was a household operation that goes back into distant time. In the Middle Ages and sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, villagers would gather together around a fire: women would sew, men would gossip, lovers would flirt, and children would play. In households wealthy enough to burn candles every night, there were a few different types: tallow (made from animal fat, and smelling like animal fat—these were also notoriously smoky) beeswax and spermaceti (often pulled out only for special occasions, even among the aristocracy) and the ubiquitous rush light. Brass reflectors and glass magnifiers were often used to enhance these lights. And as far as rush lights go, I’m going to do a post on those, but for now I’ll just tell you it’s the dried pith of a rush (the center) dipped repeatedly in fat. It was long and skinny, and it was secured in a special stand.
The most common way to light a candle or rush light was to use an existing flame. Yes, there were tinder boxes, but there was a knack to using them successfully that many people simply didn’t have. Boswell, Johnson’s biographer, details the hassle he went through (and panic) when his light went out while he was in the midst of a creative endeavor. He tried first the fire in the kitchen, and found that to be out. Next he tried his luck with a tinder box, and proved unsuccessful. Finally, he was able to get a light from the night watch patrolling outside his place of abode. So, if you’re having your characters use a tinder box, give some thought as to how easily they’d be able to achieve results. Aristocratic ladies, for example, likely would not have the skill set to use one properly. There was such a thing as a pistol tinderbox, also called a tinderbox pistol, pictured above, which was a sort of mechanized tinder box—I use one in my writing. That’s an option too.
And the quality of indoor lighting was basically poor. Even in aristocratic households, they were sparing of candles since they were a finite commodity. Naturally, there was Amazon to order more when they ran out. Sure, if they lived in London, they could buy more, but they were expensive—and even aristocratic households watched expenditure. However, no expense was spared in conspicuous consumption for the benefit of friends and neighbors. In ballrooms, it would be hot as hell from all those lit beeswax candles. And wax would fall from the chandeliers.
Also, bear in mind that once the sun went down, the house was dark—much darker than anything we know. Street lights, if your characters lived in urban areas, was often generally just lantern lit in the doorway of every third to sixth house or so, depending upon the city or town ordinance. Nicer neighborhoods naturally had more light than poorer neighborhoods. So, if your character is going off on their own in search of a water closet or retiring early to their room, they’re going to need a chamber stick to light the way.
Finally, have fun with light. Because artificial light was imperfect, it’s a great place to write in some atmosphere—shadows were everywhere. Think of how the shadows slide across your characters’ faces, the shape of the shadows on the wall, and how those shadows moved with the flickering of the living flame. Also think of the color of the light—it wouldn’t have been white, like the light we enjoy today. Reflected off brass fixtures and reflectors, it would have had a burnished, orange color to it.
Finally, have fun with it—because it is fun! Light is fun! It’s like a whole another character!