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of a
San Francisco Neighborhood

This Web site was funded by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

It was created by Anthropological Studies Center (ASC).



We walk into a room and turn on the lights without giving it a thought. The brightness and convenience of electrical light delivered at the flick of a switch is so familiar that it is hard to imagine the complexity involved in lighting buildings in previous centuries.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, interior light primarily came from candles, oil lamps and firelight. Although expensive, whale oil was the preeminent lamp fuel in America and England until the 1850s. Those who could not afford whale oil relied on the faint light of candles, firelight or from lamps fueled by lard or other animal fat. The invention of kerosene in the 1850s ushered in a new era of lighting. Kerosene burnt brightly and was relatively cheap. Beginning in the 1860s, gas lighting gradually superceded kerosene lamps. Gas as the primary means of lighting buildings was only challenged by electrical lighting during the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Oil and kerosene lamps were not simply lighting devices, but also decorative elements in the house. As can be seen in this 1891 advertisement from the Sacramento company of Weinstock, Lubin and Co., lamps and wall fixtures could be incredibly ornate with etched glass chimneys, and molded, colored and decorated shades, fonts and bases. Accessories for lamps included decorative match holders, doilies to protect furniture from drips or heat, hanging hooks, and even devices for warming food or heating curling tongs that could be placed over the lamp's glass chimney.

Lighting a house with whale oil or kerosene involved daily chores. Lamps had to be refilled with oil, wicks trimmed, and glass chimneys, which quickly became obscured with soot, had to be cleaned. Once gas was connected to a household, the kerosene lamps were often discarded. Archaeologists frequently find large numbers of smashed glass chimneys and lamp pieces discarded in archaeological deposits close to the period when gas was first connected to a neighborhood.


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