Transparencies for Celebratory Illuminations

Though we take it for granted today, light has been an important commodity in nearly every culture throughout history. It was especially important to those living in northern lands, like England, which are far away from the equator. Yes, they did have those lovely long summer days which provided eighteen hours or more of daylight. But they also had to endure equally long, dark winter nights. And in the days before the introduction of gas and electricity, those long nights were very dark indeed, even in the cities and towns. Is it any wonder that light would become, and remain for centuries, a popular means by which to express public joy and celebration?

By the later decades of the eighteenth century, art, in the form of transparencies, began to enhance these glowing celebrations and continued to do so right though the decade of the Regency. What were these transparencies, how were they made and how were they used in the Regency?

In London, by the turn of the fifteenth century, the authorities required every house on a main street to hang a lantern outside, at their own expense. These lanterns did not have to be hung every night, only on certain nights, as designated by the officials. Initially, only certain saint’s days and the nights when Parliament was in session had to be illuminated, to light the way for MPs returning to their lodgings after late-night sessions. Citizens were exempt from the hanging of lanterns on nights around the full moon. Within the next twenty years these regulations were broadened to include all evenings without a full moon between 31 October, All Hallows Eve, and 2 February, Candlemas. It must be noted that these early "street lights" did not have to burn though the night, but for less than a half-dozen hours after sunset. They would be lit just after dusk, which in the winter would be as early as four o’clock, and could be extinguished at nine o’clock. Their purpose was to aid respectable people in finding their way home after dark, not to assist scoundrels and reprobates in making their way to places of nocturnal carousing.

It took a full century before similar lighting requirements made their way outside London. In the early sixteenth century, the authorities in York began to require their citizens resident on main streets to hang a lantern at their own expense on designated evenings. Gradually, over the course of the next century, the practice spread across England to even the smallest village and hamlet. Though, as in London, most of the authorities in these smaller municipalities allowed the lantern light to be snuffed at nine o’clock in the evening, one group of property owners kept their lights burning well into the night. These were the inn and tavern owners who had quickly discovered that the light burning at their door readily drew more customers on dark nights than they had ever attracted without it. Some innkeepers and publicans hung more than one lantern in front of their premises to ensure their establishment stood out on the street in order to bring as many customers as possible to their door.

After the Restoration of the Stuart King, Charles II, in 1660, the people of England were always ready to celebrate, especially after the morally strict and tediously dull decade of Cromwellian rule. As King Charles II and his advisors had learned while resident at the French Court of Louis XIV, grand celebrations filled with light were an excellent means by which to distract the populace from those issues which might shake the foundations of a monarchy. Not long after Charles II was restored to his throne, his government began to coordinate extensive public celebrations for the observance of royal marriages, births and coronations. Soon thereafter, war-time military victories on both land and sea were also celebrated publicly. These public celebrations typically consisted of fireworks displays, accompanied by large bonfires in many parks and squares. But, in most urban areas, municipal authorities also ordered the citizenry to place candles in those windows of their homes which were street-facing. In an age when any night without a moon was deeply, densely black, these celebrations were a dazzling sight. The entire town seemed to glow with light, a most uncommon and awe-inspiring spectacle to both citizens and visitors alike.

As the seventeenth century gave way to the eighteenth, more and more cities and towns had begun to implement some form of municipal street lighting and private citizens were no longer required to hang lanterns at their doors on moon-less nights. With the exception of the celebration of Guy Fawkes Night, each 5th of November, bonfires were beginning to fall out of fashion as a form of celebratory observance by the end of the eighteenth century. But both fireworks and illumination continued as a popular sign of public happiness and celebration. Municipal officials still ordered illuminations, the placing of candles in street-facing windows, for a handful of royal and military celebrations each year. However, by the later decades of the eighteenth century, many people had begun to illuminate their windows voluntarily in celebration of various other events which they supported. Political parties, social groups and even worker’s clubs used window illuminations to call attention to their agendas. Even a few streets full of houses with candles alight in their windows would give the impression of widespread public support for a cause.

But by the last few decades of the eighteenth century, these candle-light illuminations were no longer quite as dramatic as they had been in the days before the advent of regular street lights. The candles in the windows of people’s homes and businesses now had to compete not only with moonlight on those nights with a moon, but also with the brighter and brighter light of increasingly more powerful street lights. There was also the simple fact that nights were seldom truly dark in any city by this time and there were few still living who remembered those pitch black nights. Something was needed to make window illuminations more noticeable, more eye-catching, more dramatic. We may never know who hit on the idea, but by the latter years of the eighteenth century, transparencies had become a popular accompaniment to window illuminations. In fact, they made it possible for each illumination to send a much more focused message, based on the contents of the transparency which was illuminated at any given residence or business. And these transparencies remained a popular component of illuminations right though the Regency.

First, it must be noted that these "transparencies" were not completely clear, as we think of transparencies today. Rather, they were instead merely translucent, but they met the definition of "transparency" found in the online edition of The Oxford English Dictionary: "A picture, print, inscription, or device on some translucent substance, made visible by means of a light behind." Nearly all of the transparencies made for use with illuminations were made from paper. The paper available in the late eighteenth century into the years of the Regency was quite different from the paper with which most of us are familiar today. Though by the Regency some paper was being made by machine, all paper was still made only of linen rags. Linen paper is very strong and durable. In addition, paper at this time was not given any of the surface treatments which are typically given to papers today. Therefore, linen paper of the Regency was both sturdy and absorbent. Perfect for making transparencies.

The majority of transparencies were made from prints, which were readily available from print shops in most large cities. By the end of the eighteenth century, many print shops actually sold prints which had already been made into transparencies, right along with their other wares, for the convenience of their customers. Since most illuminations were celebrations of some important national event, typically, these ready-made transparencies consisted of patriotic images, such as the portrait of the king, other members of the royal family or recognized national figures, such as Britannia or, occasionally Queen Boadicea. Victorious military commanders, such as Nelson or Wellington were displayed on transparencies for the celebration of military victories. Other patriotic symbols might also be seen, including the British flag, the Royal Coat of Arms, or the Prince of Wales’s feathers. Patriotic phrases were occasionally seen as well, such as the always popular "God Save the King."

Transparencies were made by coating both sides of the paper with a varnish most commonly made of a blend of equal parts mastic and turpentine. This solution would be allowed to stand for two or three hours before it was applied to the surface of the paper. The varnish would penetrate the linen fibers of the paper, which would effectively compress the facets of the fibers which absorbed or reflected light. Thus the paper became translucent and remained so, even after the varnish had dried. Thin papers typically required a single coat of varnish to each side to become completely translucent, while thicker papers might require two, or occasionally, even three, coats of varnish to become fully translucent. The making of transparencies was a rather tedious and time-consuming process. Each print would have to be coated with varnish on one side and left to dry completely before it could be turned over and varnished on the other side. This type of varnish was fairly slow to dry, so even a transparency made of a thin paper could take a couple of days to produce. Those made with thicker papers could take several days, with multiple layers of varnish having to dry completely between each new coat.

From the late eighteenth century right through the Regency, most transparencies were made of prints. Prints came in a range of prices depending upon whether or not they had been hand-colored with water colors, and upon the quality of paper on which they were printed. The best prints for use in making transparencies were thin, since they would require only a single coat of varnish to each side to become completely translucent. Prints which had been hand-colored with water colors were very popular for transparencies, for, even though they were more expensive, color was always considered more attractive. Since water colors did not run when coated with varnish and were themselves quite translucent, they did not spoil, but rather, enhanced the "transparent" effect of the final product. However, it was important to choose images which were not very complex, with minimal stippling or cross-hatching, as those treatments would obscure the translucent effect achieved by the application of the varnish. Simple, bold designs worked best for transparencies, with strong lines delineating the pattern and broad areas of open space through which the candlelight would shine when the transparency was displayed. More complex designs could not be easily recognized at any distance, even illuminated by a candle behind them, so they were not appropriate for the making of transparencies.

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, instructions for making transparencies at home were provided in some ladies’s magazines and there were even a couple of instruction books published on the subject. By the time the Regency began, the making of transparencies had become the province of the ladies of the house. Prints could be had from any print shop, and even from many of the larger book shops, plain or hand-colored, many printed on thin paper, specifically for the purpose of being made into transparencies. At his large shop in The Strand, Rudolph Ackermann offered both the instruction books and a wide range of prints which could be made into transparencies, as well as a selection of water colors and the ingredients needed to make the varnish. Ladies on a budget might purchase uncolored prints, then color them themselves with water colors before varnishing them to create their transparencies. Ladies with artistic talent but fewer financial resources might purchase inexpensive plain paper on which they would draw and color their own images. Such drawings would have to be made with india ink and then colored with water colors, if they were to withstand the varnish coating needed to convert them into a transparency. However, for those with no interest or inclination for do-it-yourself activities, most Regency print shops still sold ready-made transparencies with a number of popular and patriotic designs to suit the needs of their customers.

Regardless of whether the transparencies were purchased or made at home, they had to be prepared for display. Most transparencies were small, about the size of a single pane of glass in a Georgian sash window. Typically, each transparency would be put into a small wooden frame, usually just the size of a single pane of window glass or slightly smaller. In most cases, the transparency was glued or nailed to a simple frame, though some frames were more elaborate and the transparency was clamped between two sections of the frame. A very few transparency frames included a sheet of glass to shield the transparency from the flame of the candle. Though significantly safer than exposing a sheet of paper treated with turpentine to an open flame, these glassed frames were very expensive and were not widely used. In households of lesser means, the transparencies used for illuminations might not be framed at all, but simply affixed to the window glass with a bit of wax or glue. However it was done, once the transparency was in the window, a lighted candle would be placed on the window sill just behind it. In many well-to-do households, a transparency might be displayed in each bottom pane of every window facing the street, while in households of lesser means, only one transparency might be displayed, usually in the center window, to be flanked by lighted candles in the other windows which faced the street.

There is no doubt that these transparencies were a fire hazard. They were usually made of paper, treated with a solution which included turpentine, and even dry, they were highly flammable. However, most of our Regency ancestors were very alert to any risk of fire with any open flame, and someone in the house would have kept an eye on both the candles used for celebratory illuminations and any transparencies which were placed in front of them during the time the candles were alight. As with the early lanterns, candles placed in windows for illuminations were usually snuffed out by nine or ten o’clock in the evening. They were seldom, if ever, allowed to burn through the night. In general, great care must have been taken with these illuminations as there are very few recorded instances of fires caused either by window illuminations, or due to any transparencies which had been placed in any windows in front of those burning candles.

Lighted candles were usually placed in most people’s windows on Christmas Eve, though without any transparencies, as there were yet none of the popular Christmas motifs, such as Santa Claus, candy canes or Christmas trees, with which we are familiar today. Unlike most national celebratory illuminations, candles could be found in the windows of both urban and rural dwellings at Christmas time. However, there does seem to have been two different reasons for placing these candles in the window. Catholics placed their candles in the windows of their homes to guide the Christ Child to their door, while most Protestants believed that placing lighted candles in their windows at Christmas time would bring them good luck for the coming year.

Very few transparencies survive today from either the eighteenth or the nineteenth centuries. Over time, the varnish which was applied to the paper would have caused it to become increasingly brittle and without great care, the transparency would eventually crumble away. In addition, many of these transparencies would have been made for a specific celebration, such as the victory at Trafalgar or the defeat of the French at Waterloo, so once they had served their purpose, they were often discarded, since there would be no further need of them. But during the Regency, nearly every urban household had a few transparencies which they used for celebratory illuminations. Some of them may have been purchased from a print shop, but even more of them would have been made by the lady of the house and/or her daughters. A special celebration, such as those for the visit of the Allied Sovereigns in the Summer of 1814, would certainly have occasioned a trip to the shops, perhaps Ackermann’s in the Strand, to get the necessary supplies to prepare transparencies appropriate for the celebratory illuminations.

Should a character in a Regency novel need a craft to practice, particularly if the character is a lady, she might enjoy making her own transparencies. Rather than purchase prints, she might prefer to draw her own images, paint them with water colors and then coat them with varnish. If she has strong political opinions, she might incorporate those into her drawings, but with what consequences, if those transparencies are displayed in the windows of her home on the night of an illumination? Or perhaps the story requires a lady to visit the shops. Rather than send her out to Bond Street for some new ribbons, instead she might go to Ackermann’s large art emporium in The Strand to purchase some prints as well as any other supplies she might need to make some new transparencies for an upcoming illumination. Dear Regency Authors, how might you use transparencies to illuminate your next story?

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.
This entry was posted in Oddments and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Transparencies for Celebratory Illuminations

  1. Fascinating! thank you for your time and trouble on this research, not something I had ever come across – though the making of transparancies for Christmas was something we did at school back in the 1970’s by the more rough and ready expedient of making our pictures with wax crayons and painting them with cooking oil. The smell as they dried pegged over the radiators with a drip tray was indescribable the first year we did it, subsequently we were told to oil them for ourselves at home…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I had no idea that transparencies had survived into the twentieth century, even if in a slightly different format. Probably just as smelly, though, since that turpentine varnish was at least as odoriferous as your crayons and cooking oil. 😉


  2. Tsu Dho Nimh says:

    Lady Nugent’s Journal (fascinating account by the wife of the Governor of Jamaica if you need detail about that island’s upper crust) mentions transparencies for at least one Fete.

    Her book is available from Google books. Well worth reading, if only for her description of “toadying and being toadied” at a ball.

  3. Linnea A. says:

    This was a wonderful article; you did such a lot of fine research, Ms. Kane. I’ve been in a discussion group of Patrick O’Brian’s novels for years and when we had a group read, I’d asked about transparencies, as illuminations and transparencies had cropped up in the 20 novels now and then. We had no good information and I’d hoped to write on this topic for our group. I never did anything much further at all, but kept hoping I would. The Web has expanded so much since that year, 2003, and I can find much more today but you’ve saved me a great deal of time and effort! How wonderful all this is, and I’m going to alert the group.

    I’d only had a hazy idea of Regency England until I read Arthur Bryant’s third of his trilogy on the Napoleonic Wars and about England’s huge role in them. This last was The Age of Elegance.
    Besides the Regency and George IV, there is a lot of information about the Peninsular Wars and Wellington and much more. Bryant paints a bittersweet portrait of what England was like before the wars; it was an idyll, really, with well nourished people, well tended cottages and gardens and the ability for each household to have a share in the commons to raise crops and a few animals to sustain themselves.
    The country stunned European visitors with its wealth, its entrepreneurs, its robust farmers, the chance of a dignified and happy life for even the poor compared to those in Europe.
    Bryant is supremely readable and I was so grateful to a member of our group for recommending this trilogy. Our world would be a very different place without England’s 20 year sacrifice, and her navy.

    I especially admired the fact that you set the stage for the impact of such window illuminations in the dark towns and cities.
    I’m not a romance novel fan but who knows what’s in the future? I’m 12 years older than when I asked about transparencies and I couldn’t do the research now. How grateful I am to you! Most of all I finally know something about transparencies.

    Linnea A.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am so glad to know you enjoyed the article. I was in pretty much the same situation as you were. I had read passing comments about transparencies in a number of different history books over the years, but with no clear explanation of what they were. Fortunately, I also studied art history, and it was while doing research in that area that I stumbled upon the details of the making and use of transparencies.

      Arthur Bryant may have painted a slightly rosy picture of England during the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, but that time was indeed a golden age for England. I would be very happy to live there then. There are a couple of books by John Ashton which you might enjoy, Social England Under the Regency and When William IV Was King. They cover the period of 1810 to 1836 and include lots of interesting historical anecdotes of the time. You might be able to find the books online, but most libraries should have them or will be able to get them for you through Inter-Library Loan.

      Thank you very much for stopping by and taking the time to comment.



  4. Linnea A. says:

    Thank you very much for the response, and I hope to look at the John Ashton books. I know that Arthur Bryant had some critics but he is so immensely readable and I finally understand a little about Europe at the time: the need to fill the gap caused by a French Empire, the need for a Grand Alliance, the need for hegemony and balance so one large European nation couldn’t dominate again. I honor England and all those who made that possible; we’d be in a different world today without Castlereagh and Wellington, et al…Metternich and Talleyrand. (Oh my, I even know a little about them all now.) I must tell the Gunroom of the, where we discuss the novels of Patrick O’Brian and everything else, about your fine article and give them the link. Your research should be copied and added to the Surprise website as additional information, with your permission, of course. How happy others would be to see this and understand what transparencies were, why they were. Perhaps it could be listed under the heading of articles contained in Jack Aubrey’s World. Again, thank you!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      If you found Bryant readable, I think you will also enjoy John Ashton. However, he focuses on British social history rather than European politics. But it will give you a sense of what was happening on the home front at the time.

      I am glad you found my article of interest. You are welcome to share the link to it with anyone you like. However, that article is my intellectual property, and, as is clearly stated in my copyright statement, my work may not be copied and posted elsewhere. Please do not copy and re-post it anywhere else. I prefer my articles to remain here, where I have full access to them, should I ever have new information I wish to add to them.



      • Linnea A. says:

        Of course, that is completely understandable. I know we’ll be happy to have the link and that could be added to the resources page. I’m so grateful to have read your scholarly work. I shall look for the Ashton books. Bryant does do a good job with the social issues happening in England at the time, too, but of course I haven’t compared the authors yet.
        Thank you once again. I had no idea a site featuring romance novels would be so elegant and scholarly!

        Linnea A.

  5. Michaele Haynes says:

    An excellent entry….thank you for all your work! I am a costume historian but not a specialist and this was a very useful article.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am pleased to know the article was helpful to you. I have been fascinated by transparencies from the first time I read about them and it was a lot of fun to research them.

      Thanks for stopping by.



  6. Pingback: Before Silver Paper Was Silver | The Regency Redingote

  7. Yoram Cohen says:

    Dear Kathryn Kane,
    I have been looking for quite a while for information about window transparencies during the Regency period, such as referred to by Jane Austen in her reports of her visit to Oakley Hall (Letter 23, 25-27 October 1800) and in her description of Fanny’s room in Mansfield Park. Your explanation is the fullest and most satisfactory I have come across so far, and I thank you for it.
    The trouble, and surprising fact, about it is that, despite its dealing with a very unique physical decorative object, it does not provide a single illustration of such a transparency.
    All my efforts to find such illustrations on the Net have failed so far. Would you know where I could find one? I would be most grateful.

    Yoram Cohen

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Sadly, transparencies such as those known by Jane Austen were ephemera. So far as I know, none of them survived much beyond the time they were in use. Keep in mind that most of them were made of paper, and even though the rag paper of that era was certainly tougher and sturdier than our modern-day wood pulp paper, in order to make them transparent, they had to be oiled. And oiled paper would have been difficult to store or to preserve. It was not only messy, but flammable. More than likely, used transparencies were discarded after a celebration was over, probably being used as tinder, or spills for use in lighting fires.

      Something else to consider is that most celebrations for which transparencies were used would have been one-offs. Therefore, there would have been little reason to keep them for future celebrations, even if there was some way to safely store oiled paper. Even if they had been stored for some reason, the oil would eventually cause the paper to disintegrate. It is highly unlikely that even a single transparency survived long enough to be photographed.

      Though some people made their own drawings for their transparencies, most people purchased prints with images appropriate for the occasion, which they oiled and put in their windows. Therefore, prints of the period are as close as we are going to get to images of transparencies from the time of Jane Austen.

      I hope that helps you to understand why you have not been able to find any illustrations of transparencies, online or in books.



  8. Pingback: A Jane Austen Thanksgiving? – Faith, Science, Joy, … and Jane Austen!

Comments are closed.