Pamela Crowe explores light conditions and objects linked to lighting in the museum store

In-store arm-waving illustrated by the author

The Discovery Centre is a purpose built museum storage facility with regulated temperature and humidity. It is also windowless so that we can control how much light the museum objects are exposed to. 

Any visit to the store usually involves a fair bit of arm-waving at the motion-triggered light sensors located throughout (see photo). These lights are on timers, eventually returning the store to darkness when the humans have left. 

Here, light is rationed, not just to save energy but because light exposure can significantly damage the objects within. In the Store, we have the luxury of choosing how and when we use light, we understand how to control it and can instantly illuminate or choose darkness. 

Searching the store and researching the collections is about giving as many items as possible a small spotlight – even if only briefly. It’s tricky to merely toe-dip into an object’s story and then quickly retreat. You feel you must stay for the duration, ask questions, look closely, ask more and look again. You have to allow it into the light long enough for it to glow a little.

This was the premise for my search today: I return to a particularly ill-lit passageway between the costume and ceramics cabinets in zone 4, scrutinising shelf after shelf in the semi-gloom. I look not so much for oddities but for the unremarkable. 

Shelf 2, Cabinet 12, Zone 4. Semi-gloom

I’m trying to re-train my eyes to see those artefacts that have no ego, the wallflowers that avert their gaze as mine skims past. I half-pretend my errand has an intrepid purpose, like Dorothy in Disney’s Return to Oz, tasked with three guesses for the true object in the room of antiques.

The ‘Fairly’ Fairy Lamp

Amongst a shelf of colourful glass I fix focus on a small amber cup with a diamond cut design in the glass. In our museum database it is described as a “Fairly lamp” which throws me initially. What is a “Fairly”? This turns out to be a typo, revealed when I go back to the real object and see the words “Prices Fairy Lamp – Glass Empire made” written on its underside. 

Two minutes of googling later and a whole world of Fairy Lamps has opened up. We would call them night lights or tea light holders now. This one (pictured below) dates from around 1900-1910 and was a very ordinary little object, mass-produced in a variety of shades (blue, green, red, amber) and intended to promote sales of Price’s candles.


Price’s Fairy Lamp, night light holder c.1900-1910

Price’s Patent Candles Company began trading in 1830 and helped transform candle production away from a small workshop based enterprise with the wax chandlers and their apprentices overseen by the ancient City Livery Companies into production on an industrial scale. They revolutionised candle production by replacing traditional tallow and beeswax candles with a new Stearine candle made from a composite of refined tallow and coconut oil. Tallow candles, made from animal fat, were low-cost but smoked and smelled.

In contrast, beeswax candles were expensive and could only be afforded by the Church and the wealthy. Candles made from Stearine fat burned cleanly and brightly and were much cheaper to produce making them available to far greater numbers. Domestic light could be marketed to the masses, light became considerably more affordable and the impact on non-daylight hours must have been great.

Within twenty years of start-up, Price’s had become a household name and by 1900 were producing over 130 types of candles: candles for pianos, photographic darkrooms, carriages, dining rooms, ballrooms, nurseries, candles to deter intruders, edible candles for desperate explorers on expeditions and the army, candles for bedrooms, double-wick railway signal candles, miner’s candles, beeswax candles for the Catholic and Anglican churches and smokeless candles to sit under shades.

The ‘Servant’s’ Candle

Of all these I am most struck by the servant’s bedroom candle. Distinct from the standard bedroom candle, it burned for only 30 minutes. It starkly illustrates the place of light as a commodity, the ownership and manipulation of which exposed and reinforced social hierarchies. If light gave liberty then that liberty could be rationed and controlled. Access to brighter light, longer light, cleaner light reflected social status and the opportunity to move more freely and productively, more socially through the darker hours. 

Servants typically received coals, bed and candles as part of their terms of employment but were instructed not to use their 30 minutes of light for reading. Later, when gas and electric lighting began to replace candles, employers could choose to install wiring so that servants’ lights could be switched off remotely at their own, not the servants’ convenience.

In our huge Store, I contemplate the small candle holder, sat light-less in the Glassware cabinet. Across the floor, high up in cardboard boxes in Zone 3 lie its counterparts, the candles. Most, unburned but held in appreciation, like so much here, of what they once represented. 

By Pamela Crowe, Volunteer Tour Guide and Blogger at Leeds Discovery Centre 

Store Tours
Come and explore our collections at the Leeds Discovery Centre every Thursday at 11am and 2pm in our Store Tours. For more information about visiting our store, please contact us on 0113 378 2100, email [email protected] or visit our website. 

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