Late 19th – early 20th century Victorian lighting included four
forms — candles, oil lamps, gas, and electricity.
Late 19th – early 20th century Victorian lighting included four forms: candles, oil lamps, gas, and electricity. Lighting fixture design was in keeping with the general decoration and outfitting of the room. Typically only in the hall, dining room, and living room was there a great concern with the decorative phase of Victorian lighting. Elsewhere the question was largely one of practical use, although style and design were not completely ignored. Bulbs were made in all sorts of shapes to fit recesses or for special purposes, and the designs in shades and candelabra were numerous.
The style of Victorian lighting for the dining room table and library table was some form of drop light, or chandelier. For general lighting, wall sconces, lanterns, or brackets were preferable. Some of these fixtures were very beautiful, although there was a tendency towards over elaboration. A useful light fixture was provided for the veranda, just outside the door, illuminating the front-steps and path to the sidewalk. This light was turned off and on by a switch key inside the door. Lower-power lamps from one to sixteen-candle power, or the "hylo," were used in halls, closets, and bathrooms. The "hylo" also proved useful in bedrooms where children were put to sleep, affording sufficient light to daunt the hobgoblins without discouraging the approach of the sandman.
Victorian Lighting: Candles
In the late 19th century, candles were not used to any great extent for the practical purposes of lighting; but in many ways their light was the most beautiful of all. Charming candelabras were suited to the dining table because candle illumination was the least trying to the eyes and to the complexion. The candles most often used were the sort with a hollow center, called Helion candles.
Victorian Lighting: Oil Lamps
Kerosene lamps as a form of Victorian lighting were more reliable than oil lamps since the latter required a great deal of attention. The oil lamp usually left its trail of oil and smoke, plus was ill-smelling, disagreeably hot in summer, and always somewhat dangerous. Nevertheless, oil lamps continued to be utilized as a form of Victorian lighting in the late 19th century because, at this time, kerosene lighting was really no cheaper than gas or electric light.
Victorian Lighting: Gas
By the turn of the century, few communities of respectable size were without gas or electricity, and even in the country the latter was almost everywhere obtainable. If not, an individual gas plant, of which there were several makes, was installed at a moderate cost. Properly placed, such a plant was safe and easily regulated and would furnish light for less than the usual charge of the gas companies. Gas never fully supplanted kerosene as a form of Victorian lighting, even where it was readily obtained. Most newly built houses at this time would be piped for gas if the supply were at hand, even if it were to be used only for kitchen fuel. Gas had its virtues as an illuminant, and was favored by many on account of the softness of the light.
Victorian Lighting: Electricity
But while gas was preferable to kerosene, electricity was, with equal certainty, preferable to gas as a form of Victorian lighting. It was more adaptable, was in many places as reasonable in cost, and was cleaner and safer. In numerous country communities where gas was not to be had, electricity was available. Electricity's strong card as a form of Victorian lighting was its adaptability. It could go wherever a wire could be carried, and into many places where gas or oil lights would not be safe or practical. For cooking, however, gas was the popular choice, and for this reason, as well as to provide for remote emergencies, most houses were piped for gas, even if the piping was not continued farther than the kitchen.