As winter approaches and the days grow shorter, it seems an appropriate time to discuss an important lighting fixture in most upper- and middle-class Regency homes, the lantern which illuminated the main entrance hall to the house. Though such lanterns had been in use in Spain, Italy and France from at least the seventeenth century, similar light fixtures did not become common in Britain until the middle of the eighteenth century. By the Regency, those large entranceway lanterns had become fairly common in most affluent homes. But they were not just simple light fixtures.
Entranceway lanterns through the Regency . . .
Lanterns were known, made and used in Britain from at least the Middle Ages. A lantern is a specialized lighting device which was developed to meet a specific lighting need. For centuries, artificial light was obtained only by the use of candles and the open flames of those candles were quite susceptible to snuffing out by even the smallest breath of a breeze. Therefore, our ancestors developed transparent cases in which they could protect the flame of a candle, and the light it provided, from any movement of air, while still benefiting from the light thrown by those candles. It is generally believed that the transparent sides of the earliest lanterns were made of thin layers of horn. And, it is due to the use of that original material that many of these early light protectors were known as "lanthorns." Over time, the name evolved to lantern, the name by which we know these light fixtures today.
These specialized lighting devices were intended to be portable and were initially used by those who needed light while they were on the move, particularly when walking on nights which were not lit by moonlight. By the fifteenth century, in London, people living along the main streets of the city were required to hang a lighted lantern outside their homes during the winter months in order to light the way for those who had to be out after dark. This practice proved to be such an improvement for urban night travel that many other cities and towns across the country adopted the same policy. Eventually, this practice evolved into the concept of street lights, a municipal improvement which had become common in many larger British cities by the early nineteenth century. Most of these street lights were lit by a gas flame rather than a candle, but all were protected by a lantern made of iron and glass which protected the flame from any breeze which might have extinguished it.
For centuries, the control of artificial light was an important status symbol for people living in most cultures and was an instantly understood sign of wealth and power. From the early seventeenth century, in Spain, Italy and later in France, typically in the mansions and manor houses of the aristocratic and affluent classes, large lanterns were hung in the entrance halls, foyers and/or vestibules of such important buildings. These spaces near the main entrance door were nearly impossible to illuminate reliably with candles in standard candlesticks, since the flames would inevitably be blown out any time the door was opened or closed. But when those candles were protected by transparent cases which ensured the flame would burn without interruption and provide a constant source of light in an entranceway, the message was sent to any visitor or passer-by that this was the residence of a person of status and power.
Today, most of us barely spare a thought for an entrance hall or foyer, beyond the fact that it allows us access to a house. But for centuries, right through the Regency, the entrance hall was one of the most important spaces in any house. The main reason was that that was the most public space in a house, and the space into which most people were admitted. Many, such as business people or important tradesmen, were seldom allowed any further into the house. Therefore, that important entrance hall was designed and decorated with the intent of making the best impression on anyone who might enter it to ensure they had the highest opinion of the residents of that house. The foyer floors were typically paved with stone, particularly marble. Such flooring materials would be more resistant to staining and scuffing by shoes and boots stepping in from the outside than would a wooden floor surface or a carpet. And, though they were more costly, most entrance halls were smaller than nearly any other room in the house, thus requiring a minimum of flooring materials and thereby reducing the cost. Another common practice was to use the most ornate and elegant balusters the homeowner could afford to support the railing for the staircase from the first floor to the second. Those who never went beyond the entrance hall would never know that the balustrades for the stairways to the upper floors were much plainer and less expensive, and would therefore assume the homeowner was more affluent than they might actually be. In addition, the most accurate, and most expensive, timepiece owned by the family, the long-case clock, would also typically be placed on the first floor landing or in the entrance hall. Not only was it then on display to any visitors, it was also easy for anyone in the house to check the time, day or night, since it was located in the well-lit entrance hall. Any of the other furnishings or fixtures which were located in the entrance hall were nearly always placed there to impress visitors.
From the reign of the first Georgian king, classical architectural concepts were employed in the construction of many new buildings, including upper-class houses. An important characteristic of these new architectural practices was to employ more and larger windows, by which to bring an increased volume of light into a house. One of the most distinctive features of these new homes was the use of a fanlight and sidelights around the main door. A fanlight is a large semi-circular or elliptical window which was placed just over a door, and sidelights were a pair of narrow windows which flanked the door on each side, and typically extended from the top of the door opening down to about the mid-point of the door. The fanlight and sidelights would allow much more sunlight to penetrate into an entrance hall during the day time hours, making the space much more inviting and also illuminating those special furnishings and other architectural elements by which the homeowner wished to convey their importance, wealth and/or status to their visitors.
Fanlights and sidelights provided good illumination into an entranceway during the daylight hours, but they were of little value after the sun set. However, by about 1750, large entranceway lanterns became fashionable in Georgian Britain and were the ideal way to light the entrance hall during the hours of darkness. Rather than the simple iron and horn lanterns which had been common centuries before on the Continent, some early English lanterns were made of copper. However, by the second half of the eighteenth-century, most English lanterns were made of brass and glass. Regardless of the material from which they were made, these lanterns were crafted to compliment the fashionable and elegant Georgian architectural style. In fact, entrance hall lanterns became such an important but complex furnishing item that most of them were made by craftsmen who specialized solely in these large lanterns.
Entranceway lanterns were not simple objects to make for several reasons. The brass frame had to be thin and fine, to create an airy and open appearance with the largest amount of glass to ensure the most light was given off by the lantern. The head and neck of the upper frame had to be strong enough to be suspended from the ceiling, while carrying the weight of the candelabra within and panes of plate glass which protected the candle flames. These lanterns also had to be carefully designed and crafted so that the brass frame would not warp or distort out of shape due to the heat from the candle flames and/or stress from cold air which could sweep into the entrance hall whenever the door was opened. Should the lantern frame warp out of shape, there was a risk that the glass panes might break, with the attendant hazard of hot dripping wax, and, worst of all, the danger of fire. All of the knowledge and skill which went into the making of an entrance hall lantern explains why they were such an expensive item of household furnishing.
Entranceway lantern heads were sometimes crafted using elaborate ornamental designs, which were intended to disguise the pulley and swivel from which the lantern was suspended. The head of entrance hall lanterns created for royal palaces or government buildings were typically made in the shape of a crown. Many members of the aristocracy had the head of their entranceway lantern made in the shape of a coronet, the smaller crown which was worn by peers of the realm. Common folk typically had to make do with a vase or urn shaped head on their lanterns, which were often decorated with acanthus or laurel leaves, if they had a decorated lantern head. Some lanterns were suspended by a heavy cord, and by the use of pulleys, so that the entire lantern could be lowered for cleaning and replacing/lighting the candles. Others were suspended from the ceiling of the entrance hall in a fixed position, often by a length of chain. In some cases, the lantern could be cleaned and the candles replaced or lit from one of the steps of the staircase. When the lantern could not be reached from the staircase, a step ladder typically had to be used when they were cleaned or the candles were to be replaced and lit for the evening.
Most of these entranceway lanterns consisted of a candelabra or chandelier, that is, a multi-armed candle holder, which usually had enough branches to hold five to six candles. However, some of the larger lanterns might hold as many as a dozen candles. The candle holder portion of the lantern was enclosed within a large brass framework that was set with several large panes of polished plate glass. One or more of the sides of the lantern were hinged in order to provide access to the candles it held, for cleaning, lighting and/or replacement, as needed. The top of the lantern was usually open, to allow for the flow of oxygen needed to keep the candles burning. However, many had a closed bottom, which was intended to catch any wax drips as the candles burned. Some lanterns were open at both the top and bottom, but in most cases, in lanterns with an open bottom, each candle arm in the lantern was then fitted with a bobeche, a detachable disk that served as a drip pan for each candle. Thus, the floor, or those standing directly below the lantern, would be protected from dripping candle wax when the lantern was lit.
Ordinarily, the entrance hall lanterns in most houses usually burned bleached wax candles which were given a hard texture by a particular basting and rolling process. However, on special or formal occasions, lanterns usually burned bleached beeswax candles. But unlike the unbleached beeswax candles which would have been used in the main rooms of a house during a formal social event, appreciated for their warm color and rich fragrance, candles used in most entranceway lanterns were given a white appearance by a coating of bleached beeswax. These candles would be less fragrant since they contained less unbleached beeswax, but since they were in use in the entrance hall, that was not generally an issue. Even though they were made partially of bleached beeswax which gave off less fragrance, they would have burned just as bright and clean as did unbleached beeswax candles, another demonstration of the homeowner’s status and affluence. Cheap tallow candles were not generally used in entrance hall lanterns since they not only gave off smelly black smoke, they were typically not made large enough that they would burn through the long hours of the night.
Typically, one of the servants, probably a footman, would put fresh candles into the entrance hall lantern just before dusk on the evenings the family was in residence, then light them. The candles would then have been allowed to burn throughout the evening, even if the family was out of the house, to ensure the entrance hall was illuminated when they returned. Once all of the family members were home for the night and had made their way to their bedchambers, one of the servants, usually the same one who had lit the candles in the lantern, would extinguish them. The following morning, a servant would remove the burned candle stumps, then clean the candle arms, sockets and/or the bobeches in the lantern to get them ready for the next evening’s use. [Author’s Note: Though many historic houses and period films show candle holders filled with candles during the day, that was not the actual practice in the past, including during the Regency. Candles were expensive, so they were only put into a holder just before they were to be used. The rest of the time, they were kept under lock and key. Any leftover stubs were divided among the staff, with the butler and housekeeper usually getting the largest share.]
In addition to a large, suspended central lantern, some houses also had a pair, four, or sometimes, even six, wall lanterns installed on the walls of the entrance hall. These wall lanterns might be made by the same craftsmen who had made the central lantern, but they were more often made by a cabinet-maker, since their frames were generally made of wood rather than brass. Mahogany, walnut and other fine furniture woods were used, though some wall lanterns were made of a plain hardwood, then painted, often with gilt accents. Most of these wall lanterns had candle holders which held one or two candles. The wooden back was mirrored to reflect the candlelight back into the entranceway, while the bottom was protected with a metal plate to reduce the risk of fire. The other three sides of most wall lanterns were glazed, with one side, usually the right, hinged to provide access to the candle holder inside. However, there were a few wall lanterns in which the entire front was hinged at the top, or on one side, so that it opened as a single unit. As with the central entrance hall lantern, these wall lanterns were glazed with polished plate glass, since any other type of glass might fracture with the intense heat of the candle flame as it burned for long periods.
Today, most of us just flip a switch or pull a cord when we want some light inside the entrance to our homes. However, our Regency ancestors did not have that convenience available to them. In addition, in the homes of the upper, and even the middle classes by the Regency, the entrance hall was not just the way into their home, it was an important part of the house. The entrance hall was a space in which the homeowner could demonstrate their wealth, good taste and status. And an elegant and sophisticated entrance hall lantern was one of the most important furnishings in that space. Not only did it impress visitors, it also ensured the members of the family would not have to step into a dark house after an evening out. They knew the entrance hall lantern would light their way when they returned. That same lantern would also illuminate the entrance hall on those evenings when guests arrived for some special social occasion. Wall lanterns also provided a convenience for the members of a family after an evening out. It was the usual practice to leave chamber-sticks, with candles in them, but unlit, on a table in the entrance hall for the use of the family to light their way to their bedchamber if they came home after dark. With a wall lantern lit, there was also ready access to a flame by which to light the candles in those chamber-sticks. Instead of having to fiddle with a tinderbox, one could simply open the door or lift the lid of a wall lantern to light the candle in the chamber-stick. It was not uncommon in bachelor households for the single male resident to have his servants leave one wall lantern burning in the entrance hall when he intended to be out very late. By so doing, the servants could retire for the night, while he could be assured of enough light to see in the foyer when he returned, regardless of the hour. And, he could then light the candle in his chamber-stick from that same wall lantern in order to illuminate his way to his bedchamber.
Dear Regency Authors, might an elegant entrance hall lantern shed some light on a scene or two in an upcoming Regency romance? There are records that some needlewomen, from the late eighteenth century, right into the Regency, made ornamental covers to hide the pulleys from which many of these entrance hall lanterns were suspended. Perhaps one of the characters, maybe the heroine, is engaged in making a new cover for the pulley of the entrance hall lantern in her family home. What might happen if she is in the process of putting it in place when the hero arrives unexpectedly? Then again, will a rabidly social-climbing character install an entrance hall lantern with a head in the shape of a coronet, even though neither she, nor her husband, is a peer? What kind of social disdain or snubs might she find directed at her or her family? If a story requires a catastrophic accident, might the fall of the large, heavy entrance hall lantern serve the purpose? Are there other ways in which a central entrance hall lantern, or a wall lantern in that same space might illuminate a scene in a Regency romance?