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Light was a primary controlling factor in the organization of daily life in eighteenth-century households. Daily activities tended to cluster around sources of natural light such as windows and doors, or manmade light from fireplaces, candles, and lamps. The necessity of sharing a light source enforced a level of intimacy and social interaction which is, perhaps, hard for the late twentieth-century individual to imagine. Most artificial light was supplied by candles. Certainly, oil lamps of various types were known and used in some situations, but it was not until the development of the Argand lamp at the end of the eighteenth century that a real improvement was made in lighting technology. Candles were, however, the primary source of artificial light for most homes including elite households, until well into the nineteenth century. Cost, together with the difficulty in procurement and storage, meant that even in elite households candles were used sparingly by modern standards. Although they might not have provided modern light levels, they did provide adequate light for individuals to continue to read, sew, dine, and socialize. Despite the pervasive colonial revival mythology, most colonial Americans did not go to bed with the sun.(1)

Francis Baylor Hill recorded in her diary that she “work'd a cap, and play'd at cards after candlelight with the ladies.”(2) Philip Fithian, tutor to the children of Robert Carter at Nomini Hall, remarked on the use of candles, commenting in his journal when an event was particularly well-lighted or when he was given candles of spermaceti rather than common tallow for his own use. On one occasion, he noted that the supper room at a ball looked luminous and splendid, “being lit with a total of seven candles.”(3) Candle usage was another of the household commodities tracked by Virginia planter Landon Carter, who noted in his diary entry for Wednesday, March 4, 1777 that a box of candles was taken out of the vault.(4)


Given the importance of candles as a light source, it is not surprising that the objects used to hold and display them were an important part of household decor. Made in a wide range of materials, including wood, metals ranging from iron to silver, china, and even glass, candlesticks could be simply functional or become a major decorative element in a room. They could hold a single candle or have multiple arms to hold several candles at once. Merchant accounts and personal orders provide insights into the range of options available to Chesapeake households.

Merchants' accounts include a wide range of candlesticks to be had at different costs and in different materials and styles. The Wallace, Davidson & Johnson Order Book from the early 1770s includes orders for among others, “36 Pr brass Candlesticks sorted some good,” “3 pr step foot counting house candlesticks,” “3 Pr broad flat do [candlesticks],” “2 doz. common do [candlesticks] sorted, doz Iron Candle Sticks” and “1 doz Jappand Candlesticks with Snuffers.”(5) Merchant Alexander Henderson's scheme of goods for his store at Occoquan in 1760 included “1 Doz Iron Candlesticks wt brass nobs” and the Alexandria firm of Hooe, Stone and Co., in September of 1783, list among their invoice of glassware “3 P fine whetted & gilded Candlesticks.”(6) Merchant advertisements in regional newspapers also provide insight. An Annapolis merchant noted in July of 1762 that among his goods just imported from London were “Candlesticks, Silver Pattern and Enamell'd Copper Ditto, with false Sockets.”(7)

Individuals placed orders for a variety of candlesticks. Some might be as prosaic as Charles Carroll's order in 1773 for “6 strong flat brass candlesticks of a middle size,” while others could be for much more elaborate forms.(8) George Washington, in May of 1759, ordered “4 Fashionable China Branches, & Stands, for Candles.” In response, he received through his London agent 2 pairs of “Branches and Candlesticks with flowers.”(9) Washington was not the only one of Mason's neighbors to purchase elaborate sets of candlesticks. In 1763, George William Fairfax was billed for 2 single branch “Girl gerandoles” and 1 “boy Do Double branch.”(10)

In elite households, candlesticks could also be silver. Daniel Parke Custis, in 1754, ordered through his London agent “2 pair of Gentel [sic] Silver Candle Sticks with my arms,” and in 1781, his son John Parke Custis included 8 candlesticks among his inventory of silver.(11) Ten years later, Charles Carroll ordered silver candlesticks which he wished to be “fashionable but not too costly.”(12)

Among the Rural Elite Inventories (REI) group, candlesticks occur in 96% of the households. Two households in the group of 50 show no candlesticks. It seems unlikely, however, that an Elite household would not have at least some examples of these lighting devices. It is more likely that the omission of candlesticks represents either some type of oversight on the part of the inventory takers or that such items were included in larger groups of metal wares which were appraised by weight.

Among those inventories having candlesticks, the average number is 8.1 and the median is 7.5. When materials are cited, brass is the most common, representing approximately slightly more than half of the listed examples and was found in roughly 88% of the inventories listing materials for candlesticks. Silver accounts for the next highest percentage of examples cited by material, accounting for just over 19% of mentioned examples and occurred in approximately 40% of REI which cited materials. All other materials cited represent fewer than 10% each of all examples described in this way. Arranged in descending order of occurrence, the other materials cited are glass, tin, iron, princess metal, and japanned. It seems evident that iron and tin examples are under counted due to the tendency on the part of inventory takers to lump housewares of these lesser metals together by lot or weight.

Candlesticks specifically listed as pairs represent 19% of all candlesticks and occur in 27% of households having type (HHT). Branches, i.e., multi-socket forms, occur in only 2 (8%) Virginia inventories for all of REI. No candlesticks are listed as “chamber sticks;” however, in six REI households (12%) there are listings for “low,” “flat,” or “hand” candlesticks which might describe this form.

All five of the family inventories include candlesticks, with the average number per household being 9.6 and the median is 9. Among the family inventories, 4 of the 5 list some candlesticks by material. Of those described by material, approximately 48% are silver, 39% are brass, and 6% each are glass and iron. Among the family group, listed pairs of candlesticks account for 37.5% of all candlesticks and occur in three (60%) of the family inventories. Of these pairs, one--found in MASON97, is a listing for a pair of silverplate branches holding 3 candles each. None of the family inventories list forms which could be interpreted as “chamber” forms.

Candlesticks are among the small categories of objects for which documentation concerning George Mason's purchases survive. In August of 1766, he purchased from the Glassford store in Piscataway, Maryland, 1 pair of brass candlesticks, 2 iron candlesticks, and 6 glass candlesticks. In 1780, his order from John De Neufville & Son included 4 brass and 4 tin candlesticks.(13) It seems apparent that this later order represents replacement sticks for some of those purchased earlier which may have broken or been damaged, lost, or stolen. It is unlikely that these two orders represent Mason's only purchases of candlesticks over the course of the thirty-plus years that he lived at Gunston Hall.


Candlesticks: 8-10
Origin: Britain
Date: 1750-1788
Style: Determined by date and material
Form: Pairs: 2 - 3
Branches: 1 - 2 (possibly one of the above pairs)
Material: Silver: 2 - 4; Brass: 2 - 4; Glass: 1 - 4; Iron / Tin: 1 - 4



In the eighteenth century, candle wick was not self-consuming. This factor meant the charred end of the burning wick eventually became long enough to fall over against the side of the candle causing the candle to gutter. Not only did this process waste the expensive candle but caused black sooty smoke and in the case of tallow candles, an unpleasant smell. An order placed by Daniel Parke Custis made note of the problem. Custis requested “2 large Brass Candlesticks with a handle and a wide Bottom to them to catch the Tallow and Snuff that Falls from the Candle.”(14)

While it was possible to use one's fingers to pinch off the charred end or snuff, to use the period term, a potentially less painful and far more genteel solution was to use a specially designed scissor-like object known as a snuffer. A small box built into the blades caught the snipped-off wick end. Snuffers were often designed to match candlesticks and some also were accompanied by stands or trays on which to rest the snuffer when it was not in use.

Snuffers are among the items which appear in period sources detailing lighting devices. Sometimes the snuffers were ordered to match a candlestick as with the “2 prs Flatt Do [candlesticks] with snuffers” ordered by George Washington or the “doz. Jappand Candlesticks with Snuffers” that made up part of the tinware order for Wallace, Davidson & Johnson in 1773.(15) At other times, merchants or individuals ordered snuffers of various sorts to be sold as individual units as customers needed them.(16) Robert Beverley, in his 1770 order, listed “2 Pair of neat plain brass Snuffers” among the items that he wished shipped to him. The Beverley orders also show that at least some households did not always pair candlesticks and snuffers by material. Included in his 1773 order was a request for “2 Pair of neat fashionable brass Candlesticks & Steel Snuffers.”(17)

Snuffers, counted by either inventory listings for these items or in two households by listings for snuffer stands,(18) occur in 78% of REI. The average was 2.6 and the median 2.5. All five (100%) of the family inventories list multiple pairs of snuffers. This seems in keeping with general period practice; however, the family average, 4.8, and median, 3, exceed ownership in Rural Elite Inventories (REI). These higher numbers reflect ownership of nine examples by ELBCK65 and eight by MASON97. Materials are listed in three family inventories. ELBCK65 lists one iron snuffer paired with iron candlesticks and pairs snuffers of undesignated material with brass candlesticks. MASON97 and MASON00 both list steel snuffers.

Snuffer stands do not seem to have been considered a necessary accompaniment to snuffers. Only 24% of REI have snuffer stands--30.7% of those households having snuffers.(19) Among those having the form, the average is 1.2 and the median is 1. In the family inventories, two (40%), ELBCK65 and MASON97 own this accessory. Both owned two examples—Eilbeck's were brass and Mason's were steel.

Snuffers: 2 - 3, 1 pair with a stand
Origin: Britain
Date: 1750-1788
Style: Determined by date
Material: Steel: 1 - 2 pair; Brass or iron: 1 pair



Candle Box

Due to the materials from which candles were made, storage was an important part of maintaining a family's lighting supplies. Evidence seems to suggest that large quantities of candles were sometimes stored in cellars, undoubtedly to keep them cool, or in household closets, perhaps to combine convenience with security.(20) Smaller quantities, perhaps a few days supply, were often stored in candle boxes. Usually made of tin, these boxes kept the expensive candles away from the ravages of mice and other household pests.

George Washington, in 1760, ordered a “tin Candle Box with a Lock to it.”(21) Not only would such an object have protected the candles from vermin but it would also have guarded against petty pilferage, a perceived and probably real problem in elite households. Such items were also part of the stock and trade of local merchant firms. A 1769 invoice of goods for the Piscataway store of John Glassford and Co. included “6 Candle Boxes Painted” valued at 2 each.(22)

Only 26% of REI show this form; however, since these items were frequently of tin, it is probable that some examples were counted only among lots of metal wares. In those REI listing the form, the average is 1.5 and the median is 1. Among the family inventories, 3 of 5 (60%) have this form. Both family examples which cite a material are tin.


Candle Box: 1
Origin: Britain
Style: Determined by date
Material: Tin, perhaps japanned in a solid color or with minimal decoration



Lanterns served two different types of lighting functions in the eighteenth century. The first type was to provide a more or less permanent source of light in a specific location. These were often fairly large with glass sides and decorative frames. The second was meant to be mobile, either carried by hand or perhaps attached to carriages or wagons. These were generally smaller and might have glass, horn, or pierced tin sides.

Decorative lanterns intended for interior household use were often suspended in passages or over staircases. Such lanterns were used to illuminate the main travel paths within a house and also served to protect the light source from drafts and those standing underneath from dripping fuel or candle grease.(23) These fixtures might hold either oil lamps or candles as the two orders which follow illustrate.

George Washington, in 1760, ordered “1 handsome glass Lanthorne for Passage wh Lamps & 10 Gals Oyl for Do [lamps].” The following spring he was invoiced from the firm of John Drinkwater who sold tin for “1 Best japand Lanthorn with a Glass Shade with Brass,” and a “Japand two spout Lamp glass top.”(24) Twelve years later, Marylander Charles Carroll ordered “1 neat glass lanthorn to hold 1 Candle of a globular form, open at the top with Brass lacqured furniture--&c Line & pulleys proper.” Perhaps to give a better idea of the style and size that he desired, he added that “This lanthorn is for a small passage.”(25)

The second type of lantern, often found stored in closets and outbuildings, was also meant to protect the light source, generally a single candle. These functional lanterns were usually made of less costly materials than those found suspended in the public spaces of genteel homes. Merchants' records reveal the variety of these types of lighting devices. The order book for the firm of Wallace, Davidson & Johnson includes listings for both iron and tin lanterns, including two pierced lanterns among tinware ordered for Charles Carroll of Carrolton,(26) while the records for John Galloway in Annapolis document an order of two dozen lanterns which included “6 large Horn Lanterns, 6 less do [horn] do [lanterns], 6 large punch'd Tin do [lanterns]” and “6 small do [punched tin lanterns].”(27) Even elite households could have need of these lesser sorts of lanterns. George Washington in 1763, included a request for “1 Common horn Lanthorn” among the goods being ordered through his London agent.(28)

Lanterns are among those objects which are probably somewhat under counted in inventories, although it is difficult to know to what extent. Hanging lanterns, because they were attached to the structure of the house, may have been considered part of the house by some appraisers in much the same way some appraisers appeared to overlook fireplace grates cemented in place. Others may simply have been missed by inventory takers who failed to look up when listing a room's furnishings. For example, George Washington's hanging lantern, the purchase of which is detailed above and which survives in the collection at Mount Vernon, is not listed in his inventory.

Hand carried lanterns are also likely to be under counted for several reasons. Such items were sometimes overlooked in uninventoried storage areas or merely lumped together with sundry “lumber” or with tin or metal wares by weight. The Gunston Hall Probate Inventory Database may also somewhat under count these items. Those lanterns listed in a strictly agricultural context were not included in the Database; however, the contents of outbuildings viewed as supporting daily household life such as kitchens, dairies, etc. were tabulated.

Such caveats aside, lanterns of any type appear in 42% of all REI with an average of 1.7 per HHT. Although inventories often do not distinguish between hanging and hand-held lanterns, by using such factors as placement and value it is possible to estimate that approximately one quarter of the lanterns listed in REI are hanging lanterns which occur in one third of the households having lanterns,

Among the family inventories, two (40%) include lanterns. The lantern in MASON86, judging from the value and placement within the inventory, is probably a hand-held lantern. MASON97 includes what are probably examples of both types. Because the inventory lists no room designations or values, it was necessary to rely upon the context of the lantern listings in order to make this judgment.

Although there are no known written documents which place a lantern of either type among George Mason's furnishings, there is physical evidence. A hole in the joist, centered in the front Passage ceiling at Gunston Hall, was revealed through architectural analysis. This evidence strongly suggests the presence of a hanging light fixture, namely a lantern.(29) A lantern hung in this location would not only facilitate general movement throughout the central core of the house but also would illuminate what was clearly intended to be an important part of the public space of Gunston Hall. Lighting the front portion of the center passage enhanced the use of this space as part of the triad of rooms used for entertaining.


Lantern: 1
Origin: Britain
Date: 1760-65*
Style: Determined by date and material
Form: Hanging
Material: Brass or japanned tin
*NOTE: Date based on assumption that such an item would have been added to the house soon after completion.

decorative element

1. Monta Lee Dakin, “Brilliant With Lighting: A Reexamination of Artificial Lighting in Eighteenth-Century America,” (master's thesis, George Washington University, 1983), 6-8.

2. William K. Bottorff and Roy C. Flannagan, eds., The Diary of Frances Baylor Hill of “Hillsborough,” King and Queen County, Virginia, 1797, [n.d.], Wednesday, 3 May 1797, ts. 2.

3. Philip Vickers Fithian, Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, 1773-1774, ed., Hunter Dickinson Farish, (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1968), 34, 41.

4. Landon Carter, The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter, ed., Jack P. Greene, 2 vol. (Richmond: The Virginia Historical Society, 1987), 1:336.

5. Order-Braziery, November 1771, Wallace, Davidson & Johnson Order Book, 1771-1774, Chancery Exhibits 1773-1776, MSA no. 528-27, Maryland State Archives, 5; Order-Braziery, 1771, ibid., 9; Order-Braziery, 1773, ibid., 148; Order-Tinware, 1773, ibid., 152.

6. Scheme of Goods for Occoquan Store 1760, Letterbook of Alexander Henderson, 1760-1764, MssD., LC; Sundries shipped by De Neufville & Co, Invoice 25 September 1783, Hooe, Stone, and Co. Invoice Book 1770-Jan.1784, New York Public Library, (microfilm, Alderman Library, University of Virginia), 51, 9, 148, 152.

7. Advertisement of Charles Wallace, Maryland Gazette, 15 July 1762.

8. Invoice to Joshua Johnson, 14 April 1773, Charles Carroll Letter-Book 1771-1833, Arents Tobacco Collection, S0767, Rare Book Collection, New York Public Library, (microfilm, Maryland Historical Society).

9. Invoice of Sundry Goods to be Ship'd by Robert Cary, Esqr, May 1759, The Writings of George Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931) 2:320.

10. As quoted in Ellen K. Donald, Susan A. Borchardt, & Julia B. Claypool, “Carlyle House Historic Furnishing Plan,” (Alexandria, VA: Carlyle House Historic Park, Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, 1984), 241.

11. Goods sent for Mr. Cary & Company, 1751, Invoice Book of Daniel Parke Custis, PH 02 16, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; “A List of Plate with the Weight of the different Articles belonging to JP Custis, Jany 26 1781,” The Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, Annual Report, 1987, 48.

12. Invoice, Annapolis, 15 October 1791, Charles Carroll, 108.

13. Col. George Mason, Esq'r, DR, 26 August 1766, Piscataway Maryland Ledger, 1766, John Glassford & Company Records, 1753-1844, MssD, Library of Congress; Robert A. Rutland, ed. The Papers of George Mason, 3 vols. (Chapel Hill: The University Press of North Carolina, 1960), 2:665.

14. Goods sent for Mr. Cary & Company, 1751, Daniel Parke Custis.

15. Cash, Contra, 26 November 1783, Volume 2, Series 5, Accounts and Financial Records of Mt. Vernon, Financial Papers, 1750-1796, George Washington Papers, MssD., LC, (Presidential Papers microfilm series no. 115 & 116), no. 196; Order-Tinware, 1773, Wallace, Davidson & Johnson, 152.

16. See James Ritchie & Co, 1768-1777, Essex County, Virginia, Loose Papers, MssD., LC, 5; and Account of Mr. Samuel Galloway with Chas. Wallace & Co., July 17,1762, Folder 1763, Volume 69, Business Papers, Galloway-Maxey-Markoe Papers 1654-1888, MssD., LC.

17. To Mr. John Backhouse, Liverpoole, 1770, Robert Beverley Letterbook, 1761-1775, MssD., LC, no, 35v; To Mr. Samuel Athawes, 1773, ibid., no. 43v & 44.

18. Although neither WSHGTN99 nor WORMLY91 have snuffers, both include a snuffer stand. Based on these listings, ownership was assumed for statistical purposes.

19. It is possible that some examples were overlooked or counted as part of the snuffer.

20. See for example Governor Botetourt's Inventory in Graham Hood, The Governor's Palace in Williamsburg,

(Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1991), 291; Landon Carter, 1:336.

21. Invoice to Robert Cary, Esqr., 28 September 1760, Series 5, George Washington Papers.

22. Invoice of Goods Ship'd on Board the Jenny, Inventory 1769, Piscataway, Maryland, Glassford, 30.

23. Country House Lighting 1660-1890, Temple Newsam Country House Studies No. 4 (Leeds, U.K.: Leeds City Art Galleries & Jessica Rutherford, 1989), 72.

24. Invoice to Robert Cary, Esqr, 28 September 1760, Series 5, George Washington Papers; Invoice from John Drinkwater, March 1761, ibid.

25. Invoice to Messrs. West & Hobson, 19 November 1771, Charles Carroll.

26. Order for Charles Carroll of Carrollton, 1773, Wallace, Davidson & Johnson, 157.

27. Order- Tinware, August 1771, Wallace, Davidson & Johnson, 31; Order-Tinware, 20 March 1772, ibid., 75; Invoice of Mr. James Russell, 17 December 1771, Folder 1771, Vol. 70, Galloway, no. 160.

28. Invoice to Robert Cary, Esqr. [27 September 1763], Series 5, George Washington Papers.

29. For a further discussion of the architectural findings in the Passage, see Volume One, Chapter Two “Clues to George Mason: Architecture, Documents and Objects,Gunston Hall Room Use Study.

© Gunston Hall Plantation 2002