Rush Light

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Rush Light, American, c. 18th Century
Medium: Wrought Iron – K 118 Museum Purchase in 1952

This Saturday is All Hallows Eve as well as a full moon–October’s second full moon, known as the Blue Moon.
This year the Blue Moon will be visible around the world for the first time on Halloween since 1944. In times past people would gather, travel, and even garden by the full moon’s light.

For the people of early America, night was a perilous time. The full moon illuminated and allowed for easier travel without the usual fear of robbers, ghosts, and evil spirits that our ancestors thought lurked around the corner. In 18th and early 19th century Annapolis certain gatherings were held during this time, including the Lunatick Club, which only met by the light of the full moon. Thus early lighting devices were a central part of any home, oftentimes with multiple family members gathered by the flicker of one candle or lamp.

In the early 19th century, Frances and Richard Loockerman lived in the Hammond-Harwood House with their children. If you were to attend a party at their home you would have seen a combination of early lighting devices including candles, gas lamps, and even gas. The 1828 inventory of Frances Loockerman’s father, Judge Jeremiah Townley Chase of Annapolis, listed 6 plated candlesticks, 22 nurse lamps, 3 glass candle shades, 2 parlour lamps, 2 chamber lamps, and 5 brass candlesticks. While we do not have an inventory for this house for the time period, it is logical to think that the home’s lighting devices were similar to those of Judge Chase.

One early lighting device you probably would not have seen as a guest nor see on an inventory record is a rush light. Rush lights were used by the lower and servant classes, and were mainly used to illuminate late night craftwork like sewing. The Loockermans’ enslaved servants Mary, Matilda, and Juliet would have used such a light. Rush lights could be made by blacksmiths or wood turners and were meant to hold rush reeds collected from nearby marshes. The reeds were collected in the summer, the outer part stripped, and then left to bleach in the sun. The rush was soaked in water, then dipped in animal fat and left to dry. The rushes often needed adjustment and were foul smelling and very smoky. At most these lights lasted 20 minutes and the user needed to be vigilant to make sure they did not start a fire. Some rush lights, like this iron one, also had a space for a candle. Candles were far more expensive so it is likely this feature was only used for special occasions.
If you are interested in learning more about early means of illumination you may want to join the The Rush Light Club, a society dedicated to the study of the development and use of early lighting devices.

Enjoy the light of the full moon and Happy Halloween!


By Rachel Lovett, Curator

Hammond-Harwood House

The mission of the Hammond-Harwood House Association is to preserve and to interpret the architecturally significant Hammond-Harwood House Museum and its collection of fine and decorative arts, and to explore the diverse social history associated with its occupants, both free and enslaved, for the purposes of education and appreciation.
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