Seeing the Light
Not content with just reading and writing about history, John often gets the urge to re-create it.
A couple of years ago, he experimented with reading by candlelight and found that it took two candles placed very close to a book that had to be set at a very uncomfortable angle to his chair. He simply could not read by candlelight with the book in his lap. Not easy at all.
John's curiosity about lighting was again ignited (pun not intended) by our recent purchase of a Scottish wall box for holding fatwood. Fatwood is a resinous splint from a pine tree, often from the stump where the resin had collected most thickly. There was no native pine in England, so the British holders for fatwood splints (known as "poormen," or in Scotland, "puirmen") are always Scottish.
We have a poorman in the inventory, so John tried it out. He found that fatwood gave much more light than a candle -- in fact, more than the two candles he had needed for reading. This intrigued him: fatwood provided everyday lighting in the cottages of the poor, whereas candles were for the rich, or for special occasions (the poorman has a candle holder as well). Hmm, food for thought: Surely cottages weren't lit better than mansions. But it was difficult to keep the splints burning evenly for much longer than a few minutes.
In early Massachusetts, Francis Higgenson was a big fan of fatwood splints, or "candles," as he called them. Francis was the pastor of Salem in the 1620s. He was an early settler, who wrote a series of letters home enthusing over the wonders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony -- hoping to entice more settlers.
"Yea," he wrote, "Our pine trees that are the most plentiful of all wood, doth allow us plenty of candles, which are very useful in a house. And they are such candles as the Indians commonly use, having no other, and they are nothing else but the wood of the pine tree, cloven into little slices, something thin, which are so full of the moisture of turpentine and pitch, that they burn as cleere as a torch."
"Candlewood" is the usual American name for fatwood, and here in Ipswich we have a Candlewood district. In 1658, Robert Kinsman purchased a farm in Candlewood: the farm, we assume, was on land that had been cleared of white pine, but we hope that a few stumps remained to light his long winter evenings.
A conundrum: In researching the (very few) recorded American fatwood holders, John discovered that most of them, as well as many continental ones, held the splints horizontally, whereas poormen held them vertically. A quick strike of the match showed him that fatwood did actually burn better horizontally than vertically. Could the Scots have been wrong for all those years?
The servants shown in this hilarious woodcut are doing their pre-dawn chores lighting their way around a sixteenth-century Scandinavian house, using fatwood splints held in their mouths to light their way -- horizontally, of course. John being John, he had to try this as well! It worked, but his splint was so much shorter than theirs that his moustache and eyebrows came perilously close to being singed unless he walked forward very, very slowly. (The woodcut is from Olaus Magnus, Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, ).