Candles at Monticello
Until the advent of electric lights, most people found sources of artificial light expensive or even a luxury for their homes. Candles were the most widespread form of illumination in America until the end of the eighteenth century and were part of everyday life. All manner of accessories such as candleholders, candle boxes, candle snuffers and extinguishers would be typical items found in a household inventory. Snuffers, made in a variety of shapes and materials, were scissor-like instruments used for trimming the wicks of candles and lamps. Extinguishers, with cone-shaped caps, were used to put out the candle flame. After Thomas Jefferson’s death on 1826, a household inventory listed twenty-six candlesticks and candelabra of silver plate, brass and japanned metal.
When Thomas Jefferson lived at Monticello he preferred to use cleaner burning spermaceti candles, though they were expensive. Other types of candles made from fragrant bayberry, beeswax and tallow were also used in the Monticello household. On winter evenings, one of Jefferson’s granddaughters recalled, “When the candles were brought, all was quiet immediately, for he took up his book to read, and we would not speak out of a whisper lest we should disturb him, and generally we followed his example and took (up) a book…”