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Rushlight 1

One of the most primitive methods of lighting is by means of the rushlight, a peeled rush dipped in molten waste fat in a gresset. In use the rushlight was held in a pincers-like holder.

The rushlight, a partially peeled rush dipped in molten fat, is a very old form of lighting. One rushlight will burn for about 20 minutes, but it has to be moved in the holder every five minutes.

Rushlight 2

The reeds were gathered at the height of summer, soaked in water, peeled (leaving a narrow strip of skin to give the reed some support), bleached and dried in the sun then dipped in animal fat. Mutton fat was preferred to bacon fat, both of which could be skimmed off the surface of a cold stew.

Rushlight 3

Rushlights were the most common source of light in the cottages of Wales until the beginning of the 20th century. The soft rush (Juncus effusus) or common rush (Juncus conglomeratus) were the species of plant used for the purpose, which was found growing in pastures and beside streams. The longest and largest rushes were chosen and gathered in the summer when they were green. They were then soaked to prevent shrinkage and to make the peeling easier. After being peeled they were dried and then soaked in a grease-pan of boiling fat.

The rushlights were stored in containers until required, often fixed to the wall. Rushlights were a particularly economical light source and so popular with the poor. The rushes could be obtained for free, and as Gilbert White noted in The Natural History of Selbourne (1789), "the careful wife of an industrious Hampshire labourer obtains all her fat for nothing, for she saves the scummings of her bacon pot for this use". The quality of light was generally adequate for everyday cottage use and could be clear and steady if good fats were used.

Rushlights were burnt in special rushlight holders made from iron or wood, and were produced in a number of forms. The most basic type of rushlight holder was a split stick with the rush placed diagonally through the cleft. The stick was gradually replaced by an upright piece of metal, set in a block of wood, which formed a jaw at the top. The other jaw was movable and acted as a pincher in which to hold the rush. This simple construction gradually became more elaborate with the addition of decorative touches. Despite the simplicity of the rushlight's function, they could be ornate in design, with turned wooden stands and curled handles, the more decorative they were perhaps reflecting the wealth of the owner.

Rushlight and Candle Holders People with a little more money may have had rushlight holders with a small candle socket attached to the movable pincher, or a more elaborate pattern with horizontal jaws and a spring to ensure fast holding. The socket held rush candles and other earlier forms of candles dipped in tallow. Candles were rarely used however, due to their expense, and were only used on special occasions.

Hanging Rushlight Holders In order to illuminate a whole room, rushlight holders were developed which hung from the ceiling. More elaborate versions could be adjusted to different heights.

Ashley, Robert, The Rushlight, a Regional View, (Ashley Publications, 2001)