Early Lighting Picture
Rushlights are one
of the earliest forms of lighting in the 18th century. Since one can still find them for sale at auctions and antique shows, one would think that rushlighting was a common form of lighting in Colonial America. After review and careful study of inventory and passages, there is little evidence they were ever used in Colonial America. That is not to say that some were brought from Europe with the new arrivals.

Rushlights were more prevalent in England. They were mentions in the London Gazette in 1710 as "small rushes once dipped or drawn through Grease or kitchen stuff." Rev. Gilbert White wrote in the following passage in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne:
Early Lighting - 18th C period iron rushlights
18th C period iron rushlights
'The proper species is the common soft rush, found in most pastures by the sides of streams, and under hedges. Decayed labourers, women, and children, gather these rushes late in summer; as soon as they are cut, they must be flung into water, and kept there, otherwise they will dry and shrink, and the peel will not run. When peeled they must lie on the grass to be bleached, and take the dew for some nights, after which they are dried in the sun. Some address is required in dipping these rushes into the scalding fat or grease. The careful wife of an industrious Hampshire labourer obtains all her fat for nothing: for she saves the scummings of her bacon pot for this use; and if the grease abound with salt she causes the salt to precipitate to the bottom, by setting the scummings in a warm oven. Where hogs are not much in use, and especially by the sea-side, the coarse animal oils will come very cheap. A pound of common grease may be procured for fourpence; and about six pounds of grease will dip a pound of rushes, which cost one shilling, so that a pound of rushes ready for burning will cost three shillings. If men that keep bees will mix a little wax with the grease, it will give it a consistency, render it more cleanly, and make the rushes burn longer: mutton suet will have the same effect.'
The art of using rushlighting dates back to ancient times. Pliny the Elder 2000 years ago said that the Romans applied different kinds of rushes to a similar purpose, as making them into flambeaux and wax-candles for use at funerals. The original English name for lights made with rushes seems to have been rush-candle; its earliest noted use was in 1591. Many English writers of later centuries used the word rushlight, usually in a deprecating sense of being a poor thing at best, as in these lines written by a minor poet:
A rush in a spacious room, Burns just enough to for a Gloom
There seems to be only one mention of rushlighting written in a chandlers bill in Boston which lists Rush Candles at 11d., and candles at 9d. Rush candles were more expensive than common candles which suggests they were not produced as much as candles.

Many rushlight holders have a separate socket to hold a tallow or beeswax candle, especially the floor rushlights, which suggests they are likely made at at later date. There is no evidence that candles of common size with rush wicks were ever made.

The rushlight cost almost nothing to produce and was believed to give a better light than some of the poorly dipped candles made of tallow.

Early Lighting - 18th C period iron rushlight with candle socket
18th C period iron rushlight with candle socket
An iron hinge or tongs is used to hold the rush. The base was made of wood or iron. Rush was placed in a stand rushlight holder at an angle of 45-60 degrees from a horizontal plane. The design of the rush holder was unimportant. The splint holder was the predecessor of the rush holder. The holder consisted of a pair of iron hinged jaws with one end inserted into a wood base and the other counterweighted heavily with a knob or curl to apply the pressure that kept the jaws closed on the splint. Occasionally the curl had the crude shape of a candle socket. When candles came into existence, the counterweight was actually made into a candle socket.

Early Lighting - Late 18th C iron rushlight with brass finial and candle socket
Late 18th C iron rushlight with brass finial and candle socket
Early Lighting - Late 18th C iron rush light with candle socket
Late 18th C iron rush light with candle socket
The colonial blacksmith eliminated the wooded base in favor of a tripod of iron for the rush holder. He could then create a slender rush holder of eye pleasing proportion with stability and permanence. He added beauty with his twisted forged iron stems and geometrically pleasing counterweights along with touches of his individual artistry. The floor type rush holders were adapted from the tabletop rush holders and were easier to maneuver in the room. A sawtooth trammel would also permit height adjustment of the light.

In our How To Section we have an article of making rush for rush lighting. We hope you can have a better appreciation and understanding of the simplicity and ruggedness of the difficulties the Englanders an our colonial ancestors had to endure.

Source: Research & text by Bryan Wright

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