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A rushlight is a type of candle or miniature torch formed by soaking the dried pith of the rush plant in fat or grease. For several centuries rushlights were a common source of artificial light for poor people throughout the British Isles. They were extremely inexpensive to make. English essayist William Cobbett wrote, "This rushlight cost almost nothing to produce and was believed to give a better light than some poorly dipped candles."
One of the earliest printed descriptions of rushlights was written by English antiquary John Aubrey in 1673. Rev. Gilbert White gave a detailed description of rushlight making in The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, Letter XXVI (1789).
Rushlights were still used in rural England to the end of the 19th century, and they had a temporary revival during World War II. In parts of Wales the use of rushlights continued into the middle of the 20th century.
It is not clear whether rushlights were ever popular in the United States and Canada. Antique rushlight holders are occasionally found in North America, but most were probably imported from England; "none are known to bear the mark of an American smith." In New England, "rushlights were used little if at all in colonial days."
Rushlights should not be confused with rush-candles. A rush-candle is an ordinary candle (a block or cylinder of tallow or wax) that uses a piece of rush as a wick. Rushlights, by contrast, are strips of plant fiber impregnated with tallow or grease. The wick is not separate from the fuel in a rushlight.
Mature rush stalks are gathered in summer or autumn. The green epidermis or rind of each stalk is carefully peeled off to reveal the inner pith, but a single lengthwise strip of rind is left in place to provide support for the fragile pith.
After drying, the rush is then steeped in any available household fat or grease. Bacon grease was commonly used but mutton fat was considered best by some, partly because it dried to a harder, less messy texture than other fats. A small amount of beeswax added to the grease would cause the rush to burn longer. On more remote Atlantic islands such as St Kilda the stomach oil produced by Fulmars was used.
Duration and quality of light
Sources give varying accounts of the length and burn-time of the average rushlight. The book of trades, or Library of the useful arts indicates that the average rushlight was 12 inches (30 cm) long and burned for 10 to 15 minutes. Gilbert White reported that a rushlight 28.5 inches (72 cm) in length burned for 57 minutes; he wrote, "these rushes give a good clear light." There was much variation in the quality of rushlights; a 19th-century writer observed that "one might very well flicker and splutter for an hour, whilst a second was just as likely to flame away in ten minutes."
A differently made rushlight in which two strips of the rind were left on the rush before it was coated with tallow produced a dimmer light but burned much longer. White referred to these as "watchlights".
The burning rushlight was normally held by metal clips at an angle of about 45 degrees. If the rush is held vertically it tends to have a dimmer flame. If held horizontally it may burn too quickly. However, there were some devices designed to keep the burning rush in a vertical position, including nightlights made from cylinders of tin or sheet-iron perforated with holes that would allow the light to shine out.
The rushlight holder was usually mounted on an iron tripod or a wooden block. Antique rushlight holders are now collectors' items. They were never mass-produced but were individually made by local craftsmen and blacksmiths.
In literature and culture
One of Aesop's Fables, known in English as "the farthing rushlight" or "the vain rushlight," describes a personified rushlight bragging that it is more brilliant than the sun, moon and stars. The rushlight is then blown out by a slight breeze. The person who re-lights the rushlight advises it to be more humble.
Anne Brontë mentions a rushlight in the end of chapter XXXIII of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Her sister, Charlotte Brontë, twice describes the children at Lowood Institute dressing by rushlight in the early morning in Jane Eyre (once about a third of the way into chapter 5, and again at the beginning of chapter 6).
Washington Irving mentions a "farthing rushlight" in the short story "The Boar's Head Tavern, Eastcheap," which is part of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. It also features as a cheap nightlight in his ghost story "Dolph Heyliger," in which the protagonist spends the night in a haunted house with nothing but a rushlight to illuminate a dilapidated room: "The rushlight, which stood in the centre of the deal table, shed a feeble yellow ray, dimly illumining the chamber, and making uncouth shapes and shadows on the walls, from the clothes which Dolph had thrown over a chair."
Ken Follett mentions rushlights numerous times in The Pillars of the Earth, as in “there might be a few people sitting up late, drinking ale by the glow of the fire or sewing by rushlights” in chapter four.
Pip spends a night staring at a nightlight in chapter XLV of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. "Camilla have five pound fur to buy rushlights to put her in spirits when she wake up in the night." - Chapter LVII of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.
Several magazines are named after rushlights. Rushlight is a literary and visual arts journal founded in 1855 by Lucy Larcom and published by Wheaton College (Massachusetts). The Rushlight is a quarterly newsletter of the International Association of Collectors and Students of Historic Lighting. Rushlight (The Belfast Magazine) is a journal of Belfast history and folklore founded by Joe Graham.
The name Rushlite was used during and for a while after World War II as a trademark of J.V.Rushton of Wolverhampton. "During the war Mr Rushton started to sell his own Rushlite Batteries through Halfords shop."
- Charity I have had sometimes,
- I cannot make it flow thru.
- A little light, like a rushlight
- to lead back to splendour
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- quoted in Nian-Sheng Huang (2000). Franklin's Father Josiah: Life of a Colonial Boston Tallow Chandler, 1657-1745. American Philosophical Society. ISBN 978-0-87169-903-9.
- Richard Mabey (1977). Plants with a Purpose: A Guide to the Everyday Uses of Wild Plants. Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-219117-3.
- David J. Eveleigh (2003). Candle Lighting. Shire Books.
- William C. Ketchum (1977). The Catalog of American Antiques. Rutledge Books.
- Lawrence S. Cooke (1976). Lighting in America: From Colonial Rushlights to Victorian Chandeliers. Main Street Press.
- Collections Historical & Archaeological Relating to Montgomeryshire. vol. XXIII. The Club. 1889. p. 382, first paragraph.
- Gertrude Jekyll (1904). Old west Surrey: some notes and memories. Longmans, Green, and co. p. 102.
- Gilbert White (1875). Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Macmillan and Company. p. 195.
- Bewick, Thomas (1847). A History of British Birds, volume II, Water Birds (revised ed.). p. 226.
No bird is of so much use to the islanders as this: the Fulmar supplies them with oil for their lamps ...
- 11th edition, 1823, as quoted in Caroline Davidson (1982). A woman's work is never done: a history of housework in the British Isles, 1650-1950. Chatto & Windus.
- Charles Dickens, ed. (1869). "Horology". All the Year Round. p. 490.
- Loris S. Russell (1968). A Heritage of Light: Lamps and Lighting in the Early Canadian Home. University of Toronto Press.
- William Rollinson (1974). Life & Tradition in the Lake District. Dalesman.
- George Frederick Chambers (1885). A handbook for East-Bourne and Seaford, and the neighbourhood. p. 19.
- William Makepeace Thackeray (1890). "Striking a Light". The Cornhill Magazine. Smith, Elder. p. 490.
- Helen Brigham Hebard (1965). Early lighting in New England, 1620-1861 (2nd ed.). C. E. Tuttle Co.
- Frederic Taber Cooper (1921). An Argosy of Fables: A Representative Selection from the Fable Literature of Every Age and Land. Frederick A. Stokes Company. p. 26.
- Highfield, Maud, Johnson, Ang (ed.), Maud Highfield remembers ..., archived from the original on 27 October 2012, retrieved 4 July 2012
Collections Historical and Archaeological Relating to Montgomeryshire and its Borders, volume XXIII (1889), pages 382-388 (Gilbert White's description of rushlight making, followed by drawings and descriptions of rushlight holders)
- The Rushlight and Related Holders A Regional View by Robert Ashley Publisher:Ashley Publications 2001 ISBN 978-0-9540090-0-7 ( ISBN 0-9540090-0-2 )