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Reviewed by:
  • American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750–1865 by Jeremy Zallen
  • Nancy Shoemaker
American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750–1865. By Jeremy Zallen (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2019) 368 pp. $34.95

Zallen’s American Lucifers is a methodologically ingenious, elegantly written labor history of the light-generating industries that preceded the electric light. Chapter-by-chapter, Zallen relentlessly details the horrific working conditions of the common laborers who produced lighting fuels of various sorts. For low wages (or no wages at all) and at great risk to their health and well-being, they gathered and processed the raw materials enabling the lighting revolution that began in the mid-eighteenth century with urban streetlights. Readers will be struck by the vast range of illuminants available to Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century: whale oil for lamps and spermaceti for candles, camphene distilled from pine resin, coal gas, a chemically altered lard called stearine that rivaled tallow and spermaceti candles in its pure flame and affordability, phosphorus matches, and coal oil. To wrangle these far-ranging pieces of history into a coherent story, Zallen zooms in on particularly notorious incidents that were well-documented through a court case or a reformer’s investigation. This vignette approach successfully spotlights individual workers who in their own words recount the depths of their oppression.

Another of Zallen’s achievements is to situate lighting-fuel industries geographically. These raw materials and production processes connected distant groups of people—extractors, refiners, and consumers—in a long chain of inequitable relationships. Hinterlands such as spermwhale habitats in the Pacific Ocean, North Carolina’s pine forests, midwestern hog farms, or West Virginia coal deposits were the sites of original extraction while cities became manufacturing centers and meccas for lighting consumption. [End Page 161]

Like other books in the new history of capitalism, such as Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York, 2014), Zallen’s writing style is visceral. After a while, readers may find themselves becoming inured to lungs wracked by fumes and smoke, fingers lost in machinery, and phosphorus-decayed jaws. Readers of American Lucifers may feel as if they are binging on The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, bombarded with zombies munching on bloody intestines or flying heads and hands lopped off with swords. They may begin to wish that the scriptwriter had tried to captivate with something more cerebral. Zallen’s narrow focus on labor atrocities is a too simple, too dark half-truth. His only working-class consumers of light are two seamstresses who, compelled by their poverty to sew long into the night by the availability of camphene, caught fire when their lamp exploded. Are we to believe that working women did not see benefits in well-lit streets and did not enjoy nighttime entertainments that took advantage of new lighting technologies? Moreover, Zallen’s most powerful evidence comes from records created out of a public recognition that dangers accompanied new lighting technologies. For Zallen to document the hazards of match-factory floors in England using Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words, without exploring how and why middle-class reformers reckoned with the deleterious effects of light production on the bodies of the poor, distorts the documentary record for the sake of an overstated argument.

That caveat aside, American Lucifers deserves a large readership. Its incisive, empathetic investigation into the daily lives of the workers who bore the costs of technological innovation makes it a unique, revelatory, and highly memorable study of the profoundly transformative effects of lighting technologies.

Nancy Shoemaker
University of Connecticut


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pp. 161-162
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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