A short history of lighting, illustrated through Victoria's cultural collections
Lighting fades away when a lamp is blown out, or when a switch is clicked off, but the history of lighting has left traces in Victorian cultural collections. This story looks at items and images relating to the history of lighting in Victoria and considers the various lightscapes created by different types of lighting. This story is inspired by the book Black Kettle and Full Moon by Geoffrey Blainey.
After thousands of years of Aboriginal firelight, European households spent their evenings in dim smoky rooms, huddled around a spluttering pool of light. Bright lighting was a luxury. As new energy sources and lighting technology became available, nights became brighter, extending the day and changing the night time.
Banner image: Postcard: General view of Torquay near Geelong, Sovereign Hill and Gold Museum.
Image - A Corrobboree (sic)
Ballarat Heritage Services
Firelight has been an important source of light for the 38 tribes of Victoria for at least fifty thousand years, providing a warm intense flickering light for storytelling and ceremony. Firelight also has social and spiritual meaning for Aboriginal communities.
This nineteenth century engraving suggests how Europeans viewed Aboriginal use of fire light in the early years of the Colony. Images like this were often made many years after the events depicted.More about this item →
Harmony Vale kitchen c.1895, Mt. Dandenong and District Historical Society
Mt Dandenong & District Historical Society Inc.
This is the Richardson family in their home, at the Harmony Vale settlement in the forests of the Dandenong Mountains, where firewood would have been plentiful.
This photo was taken in the day, the light is streaming in from the window on the right. At night the fire would produce light as well as heat. A kerosene oil lamp can be seen on the table on left edge of the photograph, the lamp is positioned near a chair and might have been used for reading or sewing.More about this item →
Large Tallow Lamp
Coal Creek Community Park & Museum
This is one of several tallow lamps held by the Coal Creek Community Park & Museum in East Gippsland. The rough design suggests that the lamp may have been used in industry, or on a farm, rather than in a parlour.
Tallow was made from boiled down animal carcasses, mainly sheep, and was a cheap form of lighting for many decades, especially in rural areas. Tallow light was smoky, and melting tallow had an unpleasant smell.More about this item →
Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village
This whale harpoon head was found on Lady Bay beach in Warrnambool in the 1950s. Whaling was one of the first industries in Victoria, and whale oil lamps and candles were used for lighting during the early years of the Colony. Spermaceti oil, from inside the head of the whale, produced the brightest, cleanest light.More about this item →
Friends of Westgarthtown
This candleholder is from Ziebells’ farmhouse, part of a German settlement established in the 1850s, now surrounded by suburbia. The Westgarthtown collection also includes oil lamps, and it is possible that the Ziebell household used candles and lamps in different rooms, for different tasks.
This candle holder features a handle, and came from a bedside table in the children’s bedroom. The Ziebell children would have used it to light their way upstairs.
Early generations of Victorians often made their own tallow candles. Tallow candles splutter, and the wick needs to be constantly trimmed to keep the candle alight. Later generations are likely to have purchased candles, made from beeswax, stearine (chemically treated tallow) or paraffin.More about this item →
Lamp Table Kerosene
Kiewa Valley Historical Society
This is a kerosene oil lamp, made for the dinner table or parlour. “Kero” lamps provided the most effective indoor lighting in the Kiewa Valley before electrical lighting was introduced in Kiewa in the 1940s.
Thousands of kerosene oil lamps were imported to Australia from the 1860s onwards, and continued to be used for household lighting well into the twentieth century.More about this item →
Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village
This elegant gas light fitting is a shipwreck artefact, salvaged from the Loch Ard, wrecked near Port Campbell in 1878. The decorative brass fitting is missing a glass lamp, and the tubing conceals a copper gas pipe.
By the late 1870s some Victorian towns and suburbs were connected to coal gas, providing better light for night time reading and socialising, although gas fumes reduced air quality, blackened ceilings and corroded household items. Electricity was still a novelty, yet to prove itself as a practical light source.
Gas light was quite yellow, and until the 1890s fabrics were often made with a blueish tone, to counteract the golden hue of lighting at the time.More about this item →
Fortuna Villa Drawing Room
Bendigo Historical Society
Fortuna Villa was owned by the Bendigo mining magnate George Lansell. The photograph does not show if the lighting in the drawing room is gas or electric, as electric wiring was often threaded through the hollow tubing of gas light fittings.
Villa Fortuna was connected to gas by at least 1879. According to the Bendigo Advertiser, many “chambers” at Villa Fortuna were still lit by gas in 1904, although a renovation in 1901 installed electric lights in a new bedroom for Lansell’s daughter Edith.
Gas and electric light were both dazzling compared to oil lamps and candles, but many people complained that the new light was unpleasant. Electric and gas lamps were often fitted with coloured glass to soften the glare.More about this item →
Ballarat School of Mines Electricity Classroom, 1900
Federation University Australia Historical Collection (Geoffrey Blainey Research Centre)
This is the interior of the ‘Electricity and Magnetism Classroom’ at a time when a new trade was emerging: the ‘Electrical Man’. Schoolrooms did not usually have lighting, but the School of Mines provided night classes for working men. The hanging light fittings are for gas lighting. The 1900 Ballarat School of Mines Annual Report declares that “The dynamo has been connected by cables to a switchboard in the new lecture-room”. The switchboard can be seen next to the blackboard.More about this item →
Westmere Turning on Electric Light Ball 1938
Streatham and District Historical Society
Electric lighting in homes took off around the early 1900s, starting in inner Melbourne suburbs and large regional towns. Some country areas were still being connected to electricity in the mid twentieth century.
Connecting to electricity for the first time was hugely exciting, and was often marked by a community event like this ball in Westmere, a small town in the Western District of Victoria. The ball was organised by the local progress association, and the electrical line initially served 10 customers.
“The "switching on" of the electric current at Westmere was performed in the presence of a big crowd…The ribbon was cut by Mrs. T, Robinson, the oldest lady resident of the township” (The Age, Wednesday 5 October, 1938, p22).More about this item →
City of Whittlesea
Whittlesea was connected to electricity on Tuesday 28th September 1937, “to the applause and cheering of a crowd of more than 300 people, a ceremonial ribbon was cut with a ‘beautiful pair of silver scissors’ by Mrs W H Everard, wife of local MP William Everard… The moment the ribbon was cut there was a ‘blaze of light’.” (Advertiser, Friday 1st October 1937, page 1).This ribbon is possibly a fragment of the official opening ribbon, stamped with the date and details of the switching on of electricity in Whittlesea and given to patrons.More about this item →