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Darkness in early Worcester.

Byline: Albert B. Southwick

COLUMN: ALBERT B. SOUTHWICK

Were we able to hop on a time machine and zoom back to, say, the evening of December 2, 1848, in Worcester, what would most impress us?

The darkness. Downtown would be shrouded in gloom.

Imagine walking along Worcester's Main Street after dusk 160 years ago. The only illumination would be an occasional lamp flickering feebly atop a post. These were probably some version of the "Betty lamp." The Betty lamp, according to noted antiquarian Alice Morse Earle, was "a shallow receptacle, usually of pewter, iron or brass, circular or oval in shape . . .with a projecting nose." When in use "they were filled with tallow or grease, and a wick or piece of twisted rag was placed so that the lighted end could hang from the nose." Whatever they were, those flickering lamps would not pierce very far into the night. Beyond a few feet, the darkness would swallow up everything.

As we stumbled along in the gloom, we might peer into the windows of one of the fine houses along Main Street. We would see dim lights in some of the rooms, probably from candles or whale oil lamps. But the rest of the house would be dark as a tomb.

We today with so many weapons to dispel the gloom can hardly realize the revolution that light brought to human life in the last century and a half. We can only try to imagine the dimness everywhere in those bygone nights.

I have a better grasp of this than most folk because I was raised in a farmhouse without electricity. When they laid out the power lines in the 1920s, they bypassed our road. In the 1920s and 1930s there were many country homes without electricity. We didn't get electrified until 1946 after I returned from the war. So all nine of us did our early reading by kerosene light. That required concentration.

A few years ago at a family reunion, we turned off all the electric lights, put a kerosene lamp on the table and lighted it. After we had gazed at it for a while, thinking about the past, one of my brothers said: "It's lucky we're not all blind."

Actually, that dim light did not seem to affect our vision capacity. When I joined the Navy flight program in 1943, I had no trouble passing the stringent eyesight exam. Even today I can read without glasses.

I clearly remember the era of kerosene lamps. They stood in a row on a shelf above the kitchen sink. They had to be filled every day and my mother trimmed the wicks daily. Untrimmed wicks were smoky and unsatisfactory. She also carefully washed the delicate, glass chimneys so they would be clean of soot.

Living with kerosene lamps required special skills that we all learned. When we went to our dark bedrooms upstairs, we carried the lamps with us, carefully guarding them from the drafts in that old house. An extinguished lamp meant a problem in the night as we stumbled around in the dark trying to find the matches. I don't remember that we even had flashlights. We seldom used candles.

When we went out to the barn after dusk to milk the cows, we carried kerosene lanterns. I still remember the cloud of moths and other insects swirling around the light.

Actually, life on the farm was not totally Spartan. We had running water, thanks to a windmill that pumped water from the well into a tank in the attic. We also had hot water, produced by a copper tank next to the iron, wood-burning range in the kitchen.

But my after-dusk experiences as a boy make me sympathetic to all those folks 160 years ago who daily had to deal with the darkness with their spermaceti candles and whale oil lamps. They would have thought our kerosene lamps quite the thing.

At the beginning of this article I mentioned 1848 as a time of darkness in Worcester. The Worcester Gas Company laid its first pipelines in 1849 and soon gas lights were shining along the main city streets and in the better homes. By the time of the Civil War, gas lights were burning in most parts of the city. For the next 40 years, gas provided more and more illumination to more and more people.

Thomas Edison's electric bulb arrived on the scene in the 1880s and spread like wildfire. Worcester and the world had embarked on the age of illumination.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.

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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Dec 2, 2010
Words:767
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