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?