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Reviewed by:
  • American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750–1865 by Jeremy Zallen
  • Jennifer L. Anderson (bio), Jessica Choppin Roney, and Whitney Martinko

Electricity, Lighting, Illumination, Energy production

American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750–1865. By Jeremy Zallen. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. Pp. 368. Cloth, $34.95.)

Visitors to American historic sites and house museums will often encounter an eclectic assortment of historical lighting devices on display—from simple fat lamps, rush lights, and candlesticks to elaborate lamps once filled with whale oil, camphene, or kerosene to first-generation gas fixtures and electric lightbulbs. Typically, these artifacts are presented as curiosities of a bygone era before darkness could be banished at the flick of a switch or as obsolete remnants of the veritable arms race to discover safer, brighter, cheaper light sources. Previous scholarship has likewise tended to cast the history of artificial light as an epic tale of technical innovation and progress, advancing ever forward in evolutionary stages to bring humankind from dreadful darkness to beneficent light. Beginning with shadowy figures striking the first sparks in primeval caves and culminating with a parade of “great men”—from Franklin to Edison—who harnessed lightning and took Nature in hand, this sweeping teleological narrative posits the development of artificial illumination, literally and metaphorically, as giving rise to a new, enlightened modernity.

Jeremy Zallen’s American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750–1865 offers a refreshing antidote to such technological triumphalism. He emphasizes that, in fact, the invention, development, and widespread adoption of novel lighting devices involved extensive experimentation and proceeded quite unevenly, with myriad missteps, failures, [End Page 471] and disasters. A significant aspect of this process was the ongoing search for flammable materials, organic and inorganic, that might prove viable illuminants. Accordingly, each chapter of American Lucifers focuses on the natural origins, geographical range, production methods, and labor involved with sourcing a specific type of lighting fuel—including whales, boiled down for spermaceti candles or lamp oil; pine trees, tapped for resins distilled into turpentine, a component of camphene; pigs, reduced to lard for tallow and stearin candles; phosphorous extracted from bones and guano for matches; and, finally, an array of hydrocarbons (including coal oil, natural gas, and petroleum), used to make kerosene or to power gaslight and electric plants. Consumers had to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of available lighting options, taking into consideration their varied levels of brightness, odor, smoke, burn rates, ease of use, accessibility, and, most important, their safety relative to their cost. In some cases, consumers experienced direct impacts from the introduction of new lighting fuels, such as the widespread adoption of inexpensive, highly combustible camphene, which brightened the homes of the poor despite its obvious dangers. In other cases, consumers were only gradually, indirectly affected, such as by long-term environmental degradation that made some illuminants less available or more expensive over time. By the late nineteenth century, for example, the global whaling fleets had hunted many cetacean species to near extinction, and coal mines had already polluted entire regions and inflicted serious health problems on miners.

For the most part, however, lighting innovations tended to be hailed as a great boon for everyone. But to the contrary, as Zallen convincingly argues, they often came at the expense of the working poor and other marginalized people, who bore the brunt of the arduous labor involved in producing the necessary fuels and typically enjoyed fewer material benefits from artificial light. Once the length of the working day was no longer dictated by the sun’s travels, for example, employers demanded more and more hours from their workers. Toiling in sweatshops or doing piecework at home, women and children suffered shocking numbers of injuries and deaths caused by lamps that exploded or ignited fires. Zallen asks readers to consider employers’ cold-eyed calculus in assessing the perceived economic benefits of cheaper, brighter lighting: workers’ enhanced productivity versus the loss of lives and limbs.

To a significant degree, energy production is usually characterized as an overwhelmingly male endeavor, including miners, whalers, and wood-cutters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and off-shore oil riggers...


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pp. 471-474
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