In Chapter 1 of Genesis we read: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning — the first day.”
The Bible contains many references to light and from the beginning, we have had natural light which made it possible for our earliest ancestors to see. Even today, the sun is the dominant factor in our universe.
All living things on earth are dominated by sunlight. Even many things which are not living are the result of sunlight. Coal is sunlight or solar energy which has been stored for eons in the remains of plant growth of an earlier time. When we burn coal, we are turning on the sunlight of long ago.
In a sense, sunlight is the life-blood of all living things on earth. It is intimately woven into our life and health processes probably much more completely than we even suspect.
Without light we would be as blind as we would be without sight.
Living in an age of abundant light today, we find it hard to realize the consequences of its scarcity among our earliest ancestors. We cannot readily imagine the sense of insecurity and terror which seized the earliest humans with the setting of the sun, when darkness covered the earth, and all the powers of what they thought evil were let loose.
The earliest source of light, it would appear — the wood fire — was kindled both for light and warmth. This unsteady and flickering source of light was not of great help in prolonging the hours of labor. In the open it served as a protection against wild beasts. On the hearth it united the family circle when the day’s work was done.
The Romans used resinous wood, pine splinters, and the like as torches as late as the time of Homer. At the time, Romans and others around the world, often held the torch in their mouth so as to leave the hands free to do other things.
The next step in illumination was the use of vegetable and animal oils (fats) in primitive lamps of clay dating from many years B.C. The remains of some of these lamps show distinct artistic design, although as illuminates these lamps must have given but a feeble and flickering light.
The common lamps of Jesus’ time could be held in the hand. The clay bowl had a small hole in the top and a spout in which the wick was placed. Some lamps had up to seven spouts and wicks to produce more light. The lamp was placed on a shelf or in a small niche in the wall about sixty inches above the floor. The lamps needed to be refilled regularly because they held only a small amount of oil.
Candles were next to come along as the source of light in the homes and public meeting places. Through the Middle Ages, and indeed until the discovery of petroleum, candles remained almost the only method of lighting for folks of average means.
There is an old print of Michelangelo feverishly painting a masterpiece with a candle fixed in the brim of his hat. It must be remembered too that the fine wax candles were only within the means of the rich.
Kerosene lamps were widely used from the 1860s, when kerosene first became plentiful, until the development of electric lighting. Compared with other oil lamps, they were safe, efficient, and simple to operate. An adjustment knob, the only mechanism needed, controlled the lamp’s brightness by raising or lowering the wick to vary the size of the flame. A glass chimney enhanced the steadiness and brightness of the flame.
After supper the families spent their evening hours around that “coal-oil” lamp in the middle of the large round kitchen table. That was as much a part of American life as watching television later became. Mom would be working on her mending or embroidery while dad was reading aloud from the newspaper or a good “hard bound” book. The children would be working on their homework, reading comic books, or playing a game — dominoes, checkers, crazy eights, hearts, animal rummy, old maid, or authors. Sometimes mom and dad would join the children and the entire family enjoyed an evening of fun and laughter together.
In June of 1928, the Experiment Station at the University of Nebraska published a bulletin on the lighting of Nebraska rural homes by kerosene lamps. They found that the lamps owned per household was three and mom spent about one-hour per week caring for these lamps. They required regular attention more than four times a week.
The intensity of illumination in these Nebraska homes was far below the standards set by lighting engineers. There was a great deal of glare in these homes, the distribution of light was very poor, and there were harsh, objectionable shadows.
By the turn of the century, electricity had become a new phenomenon in some parts of America. Finally, Congress established the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1936 and the Rosebud Electric Cooperative was incorporated on April 2, 1945. Their first lines were energized in 1947 and they began building new lines into the rural areas of Gregory, Tripp, and a portion of Lyman counties.
Before the arrival of electricity, those living in the rural areas never understood folks who stayed up late and “wasted” kerosene. And they could never comprehend the current idea of “burning” electric lights in every room of the house — all at the same time!
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on March 17, 2021