A roaring fire on an open hearth, a room lit brightly by candles, and the smell of cooking. These are some of the romantic ideas held of the American kitchen of the past. This, however, is a flawed view, as is usually the case with romanticized history. Rather than tackling the entire embroidered history of the kitchen, there is a particular aspect that I want to bring into focus: that of light, and how it relates to women.

An oil lamp with a bare wick.

An oil lamp with a bare wick.

Light is a vital part of human life; it brings comfort, heat, and pushes back the darkness. This was true in the past, just as it is now, but historically lighting a space took a very different form. Candles of course were used, as well as rushes and lamps that burned various fuels. Despite our romantic notions, however, candles were an expensive commodity, and were used more rarely than we expect, and some fuels, such as high grade whale oil, were also pricey. Because of this, cheap alternatives were used as fuel, such as animal fat. The iron trunnion lamp, pictured below, used fat as fuel with a wick placed directly in the fat which the flame drew up the wick. The pan pivots on the base so that when the lamp is carried with the handle, the fuel doesn’t spill.

Trunnion lamp, 1800s, Fenimore Art Museum. Cooperstown, NY.

Trunnion lamp, 1800s, Fenimore Art Museum. Cooperstown, NY.

To a modern mind, it may seem distasteful to use animal fat as a fuel. It’s smelly, leaves a greasy residue, and doesn’t burn very brightly, so why would anyone use it? The answer is economics. When cooking, fat would drip from meat, and pans would be put out to catch these drippings, which then could be used in cooking and as a fuel source.

But how does this relate to women? Historically, women have been considered the center of the home and the keepers of the hearth. This idea is not new, with authors such as Margaret Fuller writing in 1843 that the man was the head of the house and the woman was the heart. [1] This sort of thinking was wide spread and poet Sarah J. Hale wrote a poem in the early nineteenth-century a poem entitled “The Light of Home,” it reads:

My boy, thou wilt dream the world is fair,

And thy spirit will sigh to roam,

And thou must go;but never when there,

Forget the light of home.

This stanza, and the poem as a whole, alludes to the almost spiritual idea that women are the light of the home, which will burn bright with love no matter what. [2]

Women were the light of the home in a very practical sense as well. Because of the gendered division of labor in early America, kitchen work and cooking fell to women. Therefore practices such as gathering animal fat from cooking to use as fuel for lamps was done by women, who then recycled the additional results of their labor to light the home. This labor allowed for lamps, such as this iron lamp, to burn brightly and bring comfort to these women’s families.

Lynds Jones

Works Cited

[1] Fuller, Margaret. Woman in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Norton, 1971.

[2] Moore, F. A. A Gift for You, of Prose and Poetic Gems. Boston: G.W. Cottrell, 1860.