How the Obscure Practice of "Candle Wiring" Saved Homes During the Great Depression


During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many families struggled to afford basic necessities like electricity. An obscure practice called "candle wiring" provided a clever DIY solution that brought light into dark homes. In this article, I will explore the origins of candle wiring, how it works, and its impact during the Great Depression.

What is Candle Wiring?

Candle wiring, also known as "bootleg wiring," involves using candle stubs to conduct electricity. Candles are made of paraffin wax, which is an electrical insulator. However, the wicks are carbon-based conductors.

By embedding multiple candle wicks into a plaster or wooden base, Depression-era tinkerers created primitive capacitors. Hooking these homemade capacitors up to an electrical source allowed a low-voltage current to pass through. This "trickle charge" was sufficient to power small electrical devices.

How Does Candle Wiring Work?

The candle wiring process involves a few simple steps:

The spaced out wicks act as conductive plates to store and release electrons. This allows electricity to pass through despite the insulating wax and plaster.

Origins of Candle Wiring

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the poverty of the Great Depression spurred creative measures to get electricity. Candle wiring traced back to peasant solutions in colonial America. But it became more widespread in the 1930s as power companies cut service for lack of payment.

Rural farmers living beyond the reach of electrical grids relied on candle wiring for lighting. The practice also took off in urban areas through "algebraic wiring." Amateur electricians learned to tap into outside lines legally and less legally to electrify homes.

"We were so poor that we couldn't pay the electric bill. But with some candles and scrap wood, we could read books and listen to the radio at night." - Mary Smith, Ohio resident

The Impact of Candle Wiring During the Depression

Candle wiring provided DIY electricity that helped families survive lean times. A few key impacts include:

Of course, safety was a major concern with homemade electrical rigging. Proper insulation and low voltages prevented most fires and electrocutions. But the relief of simple illumination made candle wiring a risk many were willing to take.

The Decline of Candle Wiring

As electricity infrastructure expanded through the 1930s, candle wiring faded. The Rural Electrification Act in 1936 brought power lines to even remote farms. Electricity became more affordable and reliable for urban dwellers as the economy improved.

Still, the DIY ethos and scrappy innovation of candle wiring remained. The practice demonstrated the resilience and resourcefulness of communities faced with hardship. Even in the darkest times, the human drive to illuminate our lives prevailed. Candle wiring lit the way.