It is hard to imagine life today without electricity, even if many of us were unfortunate enough to find out during recent weather events.
The use of electricity in our homes is a relatively recent innovation, with electric streetlights appearing in England in the latter half of the 19th century. Here in New Zealand, Reefton, on the West coast of the South Island, was the first town to be electrified, in 1888. Go Reefton!
Before the development of electric power, candles and oil lamps were the norm for lighting and cooking, while heating relied on fire. I remember well cooking on a large coal range that also heated water.
Candles presented problems because of their open flames, the difficulty of transporting them from room to room and the inevitable wax drippings. Simple candle holders – remember the nursery rhyme about Wee Willy Winky – were in common use. However, a more permanent style of candle holder evolved, known as the sconce, which was attached to a wall or, in some cases, to a piano.
Sconces had been around since the Middle Ages and were usually found in churches, holding flaming torches or oil lamps. The word sconce comes from the Old French “esconce”, meaning lantern or hiding place.
Whangārei Museum has a fine collection of sconces, mostly in brass or iron, in a variety of styles to complement the architectural trends of the time, notably Art Nouveau or Art Deco. Some have elaborate and complex designs demonstrating a high level of skill.
One company manufacturing sconces had a logo of an acorn for the Acorn Brass Company in Derbyshire, England. Many of the sconces held by the museum are not marked in any way, which would suggest they were made by companies as a sideline to their main business, such as a brass foundry or a lighting company.
Sconces come in four parts: the wall plate, which can be screwed to the wall; the arms, which can be pivoted away from the plate, sometimes a single arm or even two arms; the circular candle holder; and the wax dripper, which can be removed by unscrewing the candle holder.
These early sconces diffused the light towards the ceiling and were not satisfactory for reading. Further development of lighting saw overhead lights such as the candelabra come into being. Today’s wall lights are still called sconces, though their design is much more versatile, so that light can be directed to where it is needed, as with lights above a bed.
The advent of electricity soon put paid to candle sconces, replacing them with lightbulbs.
Several of the museum’s brass scones were donated by A.R. Staples.
– Alison Sofield is a collections volunteer at Kiwi North