Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lighting at Clermont

With the fall equinox behind us and the winter solstice looming in the near future, it is starting to get dark around here. Around 3:00 on a cloudy day, it can get very dim on the tour floor. Now I am faced with the annual task of lighting up the museum.

It's a tricky business. Only one historic room on our tour route has overhead lighting: the kitchen. Although John Henry Livingston had electricity installed at Clermont in 1923, overhead lighting was not installed in any of the parts of the house frequented by the family--instead, it was located only in servants' areas.

The photo above shows Clermont's kitchen in 1965, shortly after we received the mansion from Alice Livingston. Those three hanging fixtures are a blessing on a dark day for me; I can only imagine how much the cook appreciated them. But you can still see kersone lamps affixed to the walls. I do not know whether these were a hold-over from the pre-electricity days or meant as a back-up lighting source in case of power outages. You might also notice that our notoriously dark kitchen (in the north wing) had a skylight added in the middle somewhere around the 1860s. Apparently lighting this space has always been a bit of a chore.

That takes care of the kitchen, but what of the rest of the house? By the standards of the 1920s, John Henry installed plenty of electrical outlets throughout most of the house. Most downstairs rooms have two or three, and without a proliferation of other electrical applicances (TVs, DVD players, or stereos), this would have provided plenty of locations for plugging in lights. A number of electric lamps remain in our collections, a few of which are still used on special occassions. These would have provided a small amount of localized, low-intensity light, something familiar to both he and Alice, who grew up during the time of candles, gas, and kerosene.

Alice and John Henry's generations were accustomed to much lower levels of light than the modern American. For one thing, artificial light was not put into use on an overcast day. While many of us will turn on a lamp when the clouds get a little too thick, weaker flame-based lighting sources were generally ineffective against such gloom.

Also, one candle, the usual requirment for evening reading, throws the equivilant of about a three-watt incandescent bulb--and I complain when I am left trying to make do with a 40 watt! Candles could also be expensive, and many families tried to minimize their usage. Locating them in front of mirrors was a favorite way of doubling your light without increasing your candle usage. And Mrs. Edward Livingston was remembered fondly for the extravagance of lighting her house up "au jour" (as bright as day) during the early 19th century.

Whale oil, more genteel and more expensive still, was also commonly used, though it could be smokey. Kersoene came along in the 1850s and revolutionized home lighting with an affordable bright source (Laura Ingalls Wilder fondly described her family's single kerosene lamp in her largely autobiographical book Little House in the Big Woods), and other forms of lighting, especially argand lamps, also provided good illumination to a small area. These lamps all required daily cleaning (a task which could take hours) and continued to pose a risk of fire. At left is an image of a lamp (of indeterminate fuel) in Clermont's drawing room from the 1880s.

Gas lighting was available to many city-dwellers, and it appears as though the Livingstons may have kept a resovoir themselves. Family lore describes a gas chandelier over the billiards table in the library (both of which have since been removed) and photographic evidence from another 1880s image shows what could be a table lamp in the dining room, plugged into a gas fixture on the wall.

That brings us to the dining room: a whole story unto itself. When John Henry installed electricity in the rest of the house, he left the dining room alone. "If it [candlelight] was good enough for the Chancellor, it is good enough for me," he is reported to have said. No electrical outlets were installed there. Nor do we have evidence of a candle-burning chandelier, as we do in other rooms.

Instead, the Livingstons continued to dine by candlelight for the duration of their lives at Clermont. Six candles were used on the dining room table, and additional candleabras, boasting three candles each, were located at either end of the large room. Remember what I mentioned about people being accustomed to lower levels of light? At the estimated equivilant of three-watts per candle, this would be roughly like trying to light a very large room with a 36 watt bulb.

The secret to lighting a room with these generally weak sources comes down to one skill: lighting only the areas that you need to see. Whereas most of us are used to lighting our rooms with a broad wash of overhead light, when using candles or lamps, many dark corners usually remain: you light the dining room table, but leave some of the portraits lurking like ghosts along the walls. You light the mantel (where the mirrors bounce back extra light), but leave the sofa as a curvacious shadow in the middle of the room.

In fact, lighting in this way gives you the ability to control what people look at. With their eyes drawn to the lighter areas of the room, you can subtly direct their attention. It is an art that theatrical lighting technicians spend years studying.

We modern electricity-users can get a little romantic about our candle-light. But the fact is that electric lighting generated mass excitement for reason at the turn of the century. Its practical, generally safe, and infinitely brighter capabilities revolutionized the way we experience the night, and people gravitated to electricity spectacles like the "Illuminations" of the 1909 Steamboat Bicentennial cellebration (pictured at right in Poughkeepsie).

Every time I find myself crawling around with an extension cord and an electric lamp at Clermont, I am trying to ballance the appearance of this historic use of light with the needs of the modern, light-greedy human eye. What do we do about it? That is a long story too, and I will save it for another blog entry.

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