Upholding the Light:   Regency Candle Holders – Part One

Last week, I wrote about the various types of candles which might have been in use during the years of the Regency. But candles were only one half of the equation when it came to the lighting fixtures of the early nineteenth century. Those candles had to be supported while they burned, for safety’s sake as much as to take full advantage of the light which they produced. And there were literally tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of designs for devices which held candles, from the crudest notched chunk of wood to the finest rock-crystal chandelier.

It would be impossible to discuss all of the many versions of candle holders made in the small space available here. Nor could it be managed, even in a very large book, of which there are several. Rather, I shall discuss the three primary types of candle holders, with basic explanations of the different variations made within each type and some general observations on their use. This week, rushlight holders, candlesticks and candle-stands.

The types of candle holders fall into three main categories. There were candlesticks, which were free-standing, and might be small enough to set on a table, to the grand floor-standing torchères; there were bracket lights, which would be attached to a wall or other vertical surface; and there were chandeliers, which would be hung from the ceiling. Any of these candle holders might have only a single nozzle, to hold a single candle, to multiple branches, which might hold as many as a dozen or more candles. Though "nozzle" may seem an odd word to use in describing the socket which held candles in a candle holder, in fact, that is the very origin of the word. In medieval times, nearly anything which projected from something, particularly if it had a hole or opening, was perceived as a "nose." Therefore, that open part of the candle holder which projected from the body of the holder to receive the base of the candle was known as the "nossel," which was the spelling used during the Regency. Over time the spelling has changed to become standardized as "nozzle." There were also many pricket candle holders in medieval times. This type of candle holder had one or more spikes upon which a candle would be impaled, rather than pushing it into a nozzle. By the Regency, very few pricket candle holders were still made or used, and most of those were designed for use in buildings or rooms decorated in the Gothic style. There were, of course, still a number of pricket candle holders to be found in ancient family seats which had actually been built during the Middle Ages. By the middle of the eighteenth century, there were also specialty pieces of furniture which had built-in support for candles, or had attached candle holders. A number of such pieces were still made and used during the Regency.

The earliest candle holders were rushlight holders, just as rushlights had been the earliest candles. The simplest, and least expensive rushlight holder was a chunk of wood with a notch cut into it. The rushlight would be wedged into the notch for support as it burned. Naturally, the rushlight would have to be carefully watched as it was burning to ensure it did not ignite its support. By the seventeenth century, a rushlight holder design had come into wide use and was still in use during the Regency. These rushlight holders were typically made of wrought iron, with jaws similar to a pair of pliers. One side of the jaws was a fixed vertical, while the other side terminated in a slanted or curved arm which was counter-weighted. The rushlight was placed between the jaws of the rushlight holder at about a forty-five degree angle, with perhaps six to eight inches of the average eighteen-inch rushlight extending above the jaws of the holder. Even in this iron holder it would have to be watched. As the rushlight burned away at one end, the jaws of the holder would be opened enough to move more of the rush up to be consumed. Or, if additional light was needed, the rushlight could be centered horizontally in the holder and both ends ignited. This is the origin of the phrase "burning the candle at both ends." It had the advantage of doubling the amount of light provided, but with the result that the rushlight would be consumed in half the time. An eighteen-inch rushlight lit at only one end would burn for about twenty minutes. With both ends burning, it would produce twice the light, but would burn out in about ten minutes. Some rushlight holders also included a nozzle for a candle, so the family could use one lighting device for two different purposes. The holder could be used for a candle when they could afford them, and rushlights when they could not.

No two rushlight holders are alike. There were numerous regional designs and decorative details, not to mention that they were all made by hand, by the local blacksmith, so each rushlight holder was unique. Rushlight holders fall into the three main categories of all candle holders. The majority of rushlight holders were table-top models, which were the least expensive. However, there were also floor-standing rushlight holders, which, because they required more iron to make, were commensurately more costly. There are a few known bracket rushlight holders which were attached to walls, and there are even a few rushlight "chandeliers," which were made to be hung from an overhead beam. These overhead rushlight holders often had more than one set of jaws, so that multiple rushlights could be burned at the same time. However, both the bracket type and hanging type of rushlight holders are very scarce today, while there are still a number of table-top rushlight holders to be seen in museums, historic houses and even, occasionally, in antique shops and auction houses. The table-top rushlight holders also display the widest range of ornamentation. Some are just a crude set of iron jaws with the upright jammed into a rough wooden block. Others are quite beautiful, with the upright of iron which has been worked to a spiral or other decorative shape, set into an elaborately ornate base. The more decorative the holder, the more materials and labor wold have been required to make it, thus increasing its cost.

Candlesticks, that is, free-standing, table-top candle holders, were probably the most used type of candle holders during the Regency, as they had been during the previous centuries. They were portable, thus making it easy to locate the light of the candle where it was most needed. While wall sconces and chandeliers did provide a great deal of light, even the very wealthy only used these types of candle holders for special occasions, such as balls and other important social events. The number of candles a family, or an individual, was willing to burn once the sun was down was a clear indication of their wealth and consequence. However any home, or even a room, highly illuminated for other than a social gathering was certain to cause comment and gossip among the neighbors. When a family, even a wealthy aristocratic family, spent the evening at home, without guests, they would have lit only a few candles, perhaps as many as three or four, if they were very wealthy, typically to light only a single room at a time. While the family was dining, candles would be placed on the table and possibly one or two on the sideboard, to light the proceedings. Most of the candles in the dining room would be extinguished as soon as the family left the room, leaving just one or two alight long enough for the servants to see while clearing up. Three or four candles would then be lit in the drawing room, the book or music room, depending upon which room the family chose to sit in after dinner. More often, only one or two candles would be lit, perhaps one on a table where the ladies were working their embroidery and chatting, another on a side table, where the gentlemen were engaged with a game of chess. One candle would be sufficient if someone were reading aloud to the group or playing a musical instrument. If conversation was the order of the evening, a pair candle holders were often placed on the mantlepiece, especially if it was mirrored, to throw diffused light more evenly over a wider area of the room.

Candlesticks used in these public rooms were usually quite decorative, and made from many luxurious and reflective materials, including silver, gold, porcelain, crystal or glass, or combinations of some or all of these. The reflective materials used for these candle holders would increase the light by reflecting and re-reflecting the light of the candle flame. However, there were also candlesticks which included a small shade, either a flat one, placed to one side, or tiny versions of our modern lamp shades. Though it may seem odd to us, many people who were used to little or no light in the hours after sunset felt the need to be shielded from the full glare of a candle flame, particularly that of beeswax candles, which burned three or four times brighter than the average tallow candle. Older ladies, especially those who felt their looks were fading, preferred to be seen in shaded candlelight. Some common candle shades were made of a pleated and fanned thick paper or stiffened fabric, which was supported by an armature that extended out from the candlestick. These shades might fan to a half or a full circle in front of the candle flame and could be folded closed when not needed. Shades might also be made in the shape of a small metal frame which was attached at the end of a small arm that extended from just below the nozzle of the candlestick. The metal frame might be filled with gathered or pleated fabric, sometimes matching the furnishing fabrics in the room in which it was used. However, some of the prettiest of these "frame shades" were made of a small pane of glass which was painted with a lush and colorful bouquet of flowers or a charming pastoral scene. Such paintings might be executed by one of the ladies of the household, and, if she were unmarried, pointed out to potential suitors by her fond mama as a demonstration of her accomplishments. The small glass painting would seem to glow when it was illuminated from behind by the flame of the candle.

After dark, unused areas of the house, such as passages and bedchambers, would have remained unlit, with the exception of the main entrance hall or foyer. There, a single candle might be left burning, particularly if the family was out. But this candle would have been placed inside a lantern, or other glass-enclosed holder, as even a mild puff of air from the movement of an opening door, or coming in through a nearby open window, could easily extinguish an exposed flame. It was also deemed safer to have an unattended candle enclosed in glass, with the expectation it would reduce the risk of fire. On the entryway table, clustered around this glass-enclosed candle, would be placed chambersticks for the use of the various family members when they returned home for the evening, or when they all filed out of the drawing room to retire for the night. In their basic form, a chamberstick was a small circular dish or pan with a candle nozzle in the center, typically with a handle at one side. However, during the eighteenth century, chambersticks had become quite ornate and complex, and many of those designs were still in use during the Regency. Some chambersticks were made of porcelain or glass, but many more of them were made of metal, often brass, though there were numerous silver chambersticks. One of the loveliest and most elaborate type of chamberstick was made of silver, and incorporated both a pair of box snuffer scissors and a conical candle dowser in its design. The pair of box snuffers slid into a specially made slot just under the candle nozzle, and the small dowser cone was placed on a small bracket on the inside of the elegantly curved handle. There are many surviving brass chambersticks which have a conical candle flame dowser attached to the handle, but few of these include a pair of box snuffers as well. Most glass and porcelain chambersticks consisted of only the pan, the nozzle and the handle. The purpose of the pan found on most chambersticks was to catch any wax which might otherwise drip on clothing or floors as it was carried along the corridors to the bedchamber.

In most households, chambersticks were not kept in bedchambers. They might be left there overnight, if the person who had carried them to the room did not require the assistance of a servant to retire. Chambersticks would have been removed by the servant when they left the bedchamber, or by a servant who came to clean the room in the morning. All the chambersticks would be taken to the kitchen, or if the house was big enough, to the special "candle room" in the service area, where they would be cleaned and prepared for the next night’s use. A number of large households had not only a candle room, in which all the paraphernalia required to maintain all household candles and candle holders was kept, but would also employ a servant, usually referred to as the "candle man," whose sole responsibility was to care for all of these items, which was a full-time job. There is some evidence there were "candle women," but it seems that if a woman had charge of the candles and related equipment, she most likely had to do her work in a corner of the kitchen, or somewhere nearby, rather than have her own separate candle room.

In a well-to-do house, the removal of the chamberstick did not mean the occupant of that bedchamber was left in the dark. Most bedchambers would be furnished with at least one pair of candlesticks, if not two. One pair of candlesticks would be placed on either side of the bed, on bedside tables. These candlesticks might have more than one branch, each with a separate candle nozzle, particularly in the bedchambers of the master and/or the mistress. In the other bedchambers, a single-nozzle candlestick on each side of the bed was the most typical. In addition, there might be a pair of toilet candlesticks placed on the dressing table. Toilet candlesticks, meant specifically for use in front of a looking glass, were usually a bit shorter than those to be found in a drawing room or other more public room. They were, however, often made of the same reflective and luxurious materials. By the Regency, ladies often preferred cut glass toilet candlesticks, which would glitter in the dancing light of the candle flame. But many toilet candlesticks were made of metal, both silver and brass, those made of silver being the most ornate and decorative. Oftentimes toilet candlesticks, particularly those made of silver, were made in pairs, with a matching stand to hold a pair of box snuffer scissors, and sometimes also a dowsing cone. Toilet candlesticks made for use in men’s dressing rooms tended to be less ornate and more restrained in their embellishment than those made for ladies, but they were still likely to made of the same highly reflective, high quality materials.

In the less well-to-do houses, and in the servants’ quarters of the better houses, there were few candlesticks and most were made of inexpensive materials like tin, pewter or earthenware. These candlesticks tended to have only one, or perhaps two nozzles, as the people who bought them could not usually afford to burn more than one candle at a time. If they were of the middling classes, they might have lit two candles, should they have guests of an evening. In most upper-class houses, servants typically received a ration of candles as part of their board, and upper servants might also be granted the right of keeping any partially burned candles which had been leftover from the previous night. Typically, the butler and the housekeeper would divide the beeswax stubs between them and the other servants would be given the tallow stubs, based on their rank and seniority. However, in very frugal or parsimonious households, all the candle stubs would be gathered up by the candle man or woman, sorted by wax type, melted down, and remade into new candles. These remade candles were then given to the servants for their use. Most servants would have a single simple candlestick in their room, even if they shared the room with others. The butler and the housekeeper were often allowed a pair of candlesticks each, and typically received new candles, though usually of tallow, unless the householder was especially cheeseparing. In that case, they would get remade candles, as did the other servants, and might only have one simple candlestick in which to burn them. Governesses or tutors, who typically occupied a strata in between servant and family member, were usually allocated a pair of better quality candlesticks for their use than were allowed to the other servants. These were usually brass, though, a governess might be allowed the use of a pair of porcelain or glass candlesticks. Tutors and governesses were also usually allowed at least the same number of candles as the housekeeper and butler. In some households they were allowed more, in recognition of the fact they might need the light in the evening in order to prepare their lessons for the following day. Thus, these candle allocations were an investment in the education of the young people in the home.

For some people, any type of candlesticks were too much of a luxury, if they were very poor. An empty bottle with the right size mouth might be pressed into service as a candle holder whenever they could afford a candle. Or, poor people might simply let some candle wax drop onto a cracked dish, or even right onto their table top, then set the candle in the melted wax, holding it there until the dripped wax solidified enough to hold the candle upright. Such "candle holders" might be seen in the lowest sort of taverns, public houses and gaming hells, or the dwellings of the very poor. Needless to say, the careless placement and management of burning candles, particularly in situations like this, led to a great many fires, even as late as the Regency.

For those who usually burned tallow candles, there was one particular form of candlestick which had been popular since the early eighteenth century. This type of candlestick might be made of tin, pewter, brass, or even silver, to appeal to various income levels. It should be noted that the silver models were more likely to have been used with beeswax rather than tallow candles. This unique candlestick had a very deep socket, nearly the full length of a candle, which included a slide ejector with an external handle. These pusher candlesticks allowed the height of the flame to be kept at approximately the same height, since the candle would be pushed up by the slide ejector as it burned. This ejector feature also made the candlesticks easier to clean and ensured the use of nearly all the candle wax. Such candlesticks were very useful for those who engaged in various handicrafts in the evening hours to help earn extra money. An accessory which was commonly used with these candlesticks was a glass bowl of a globular shape, filled with water. This water-filled glass globe was placed near the candle flame, and had the effect of intensifying the light. Such accessories were commonly used by lace-makers, and others who did fine work which required as much light as possible. Such water globes had been in use in England since at least the seventeenth century, and were also often used during the Regency by frugal ladies and gentlemen who read or worked in their libraries or book rooms after dark. You have seen one in use yourself, if you have seen Peter Jackson‘s film of The Fellowship of the Ring from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. There is a glass globe of water on the table in the library at Minas Tirith when Gandalf is researching the history of the One Ring. That globe of water is not there in case he gets thirsty. It is there to intensify the light produced by the candles.

A sub-set of the main category of candlesticks were torchères, of which there are two types. Some torchères were simply very large, free-standing candlesticks in which would be placed one very large candle which would burn for a long time. Or, they might have multiple branches in which many normal size candles could be burned at once. George IV preferred these large floor-standing candlesticks to chandeliers when he was redecorating Windsor Castle in the 1820s. The pair of gilt bronze multi-branch torchères he chose for his Great Drawing Room (now known as the Crimson Drawing Room) can be seen in front of a pair of looking glasses in this 1827 elevation of the east side of the room. At the time, this was highly unusual, as at least one chandelier would have been considered de rigueur for such a grand room. Was the king trying to make a design statement or did he think the overhead light from a chandelier too severe and unflattering for his aging countenance? Perhaps he thought the more diffused glow of the great gilt torchères would cast him in a better light?

The other type of torchère was actually known in England as a candle-stand. This was a small piece of furniture, usually in the form of a table, or a narrow bureau with a few drawers, upon which could be placed any thing from a single-nozzle candlestick to a multi-branch tale-top candelabra. These small pieces of furniture were easily portable, thus making it a simple matter to place the source of candlelight were it was most needed at a given moment. In France, these pieces of furniture were known as torchères, as were large, free-standing candle holders, which can be a bit confusing. In England, a torchère had to have nozzles for holding candles. If a piece of furniture was only used to place candlesticks upon, then, in Britain, it was referred to as a candle-stand.

There were other furniture forms which included special areas on which to place candlesticks. Perhaps the most greedy for light was the card table. Many card tables made from the eighteenth century onward had circular, oval or square depressions at each corner which were typically of polished wood and not covered with baize. These were for the placement of candlesticks to light the game when it was underway. Most players, ladies or gentlemen, especially if they were playing for high stakes, wanted to be sure there was plenty of light at the table, with no shadows in which any attempt at cheating might be concealed. A candle at each corner of the table would tend to eliminate any unwanted shadows and provide even light to all players. Well-lit card tables, with a full complement of four candles, was expected in any card room set up for any ton social event during the Regency. Otherwise, there might be gossip later about such a shabby entertainment. However, for a friendly game at home with the family, one or two candles would be quite enough to light the table.

Another device for the support of candlesticks began to be incorporated into a number of furniture forms, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century and continuing in popularity right through the Regency. The candle slide was usually made of the same wood as the piece of furniture in which it was included and was designed so that when not in use it could slide into the body of the piece, rather like a shallow drawer. These slides were usually anywhere from six to three inches wide, and would be at least two or three feet long, to ensure they could be adjusted to place the light at the best possible point. Some were anchored so that they could not be removed, while others would slide all the way out, if pulled too far. They might be completely flat on the surface, or they might have a slight depression, such as those found on card table corners. Many of these candle slides had small brass or gilt handles by which to pull them out. Others would set flush into the body of the piece, with no apparent handle, only a small depression under them, by which one or two fingers could pull them out. On some pieces, the candle slide could only be released by moving a hidden catch which would them push them out. Some of these pieces of furniture had only one candle slide, but there were a number which had multiple slides. Candle slides were most often found on desks, card tables, work tables and, occasionally, dressing tables. Most desks would tend to have two candle slides, one on each side, to allow plenty of light when working after dark. Card tables typically had four candle slides, one at each corner, thus providing the necessary shadowless playing surface. Ladies’ work tables might have two slides, though many had only one, and dressing tables usually had two. Candle slides incorporated into desks and card tables tended to be of the obvious, handled variety, while those which were incorporated into ladies’s work tables and dressing tables were more likely to have handle-less or hidden, catch-released candle slides. Candlesticks used on candle slides tended to have a smaller footprint and might also be somewhat shorter than candlesticks used to light the public rooms of the house, since these slides were not constructed to bear the weight of the larger candlesticks.

Next week, I will cover the less common, but certainly more expensive, and often spectacular, fixed candle holder types, the bracket lights and chandeliers.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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