How Early Households Illuminated Their Homes with Simple Yet Ingenious Methods

I still remember the stories my grandmother used to tell me about how people lit their homes before electricity. Living without convenient light sources required creativity and resourcefulness. Here are some of the ingenious ways people illuminated their houses in earlier times.


Candles have been used to bring light into dark spaces for thousands of years. Early candles were made from tallow, which is animal fat, or beeswax. Tallow candles were cheaper and burned longer but gave off an unpleasant smell. Beeswax candles were cleaner burning but more expensive to produce. To make a basic candle, people would melt the tallow or wax and then dip wicks made of natural fibers like cotton or hemp into the liquid repeatedly until the candles were thick enough. Candle making was typically women's work done at home. Families might have a few candles for light at night, but they were precious and used sparingly.

Oil Lamps

Long before kerosene lamps and lightbulbs, people burned oil in simple lamps to illuminate their homes. Early oil lamps were just shallow bowls or containers with a spout or holes for inserting a wick. Olive oil and other plant-based oils were commonly used. The wick would draw up the oil, and the lit end would provide a flickering flame. Like candles, oil lamps gave off faint, uneven light and lots of smoke, so they had to be used cautiously. But they could burn for hours on one filling of oil. Trimming and maintaining the wicks was crucial for proper burning.

Fireplaces and Hearths

Before centralized heating, the fireplace provided warmth as well as light. Homes were built around large, open hearths with chimneys to let out the smoke. As windows were very small or nonexistent, the glow of the fire was sometimes the only illumination indoors after dark. People oriented their activities like cooking, eating, and mending near the fireplace to take advantage of the light and heat it radiated. Extended families would gather around the hearth in the evenings to work on projects by firelight. The area around the hearth was the center of family life.

Torches, Lanterns, and Rushlights

For lighting outside the home, people made portable fire sources such as torches and lanterns. Torches were usually just sticks or bundles of dry material dipped in pitch or oil and then lit. Lanterns enclosed a candle or wick in a protective case with holes for the light. They could be carried or hung on poles. Rushlights were made by dipping dry reeds or rushes in melted tallow and allowing them to harden slightly before the tallow cooled completely. They provided a crude disposable light source. None of these could illuminate more than a small surrounding area, but they made outdoor activities like walking at night safer.

Ingenuity and adaptability were essential to survival before modern amenities like electric lighting. These simple lighting methods provided comfort and light to generations of families through centuries when daylight dictated the rhythms of life. Though dim and flickering, they allowed activities after dark that we take for granted today. The efforts of our ancestors to illuminate their world with limited means are truly inspiring.