Shimmer and Shine: Domestic Illumination and Surface Reflection Before the Light Bulb

Ann Smart Martin, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Tuesday, February 12, 2013Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
High chest, Boston, Massachusetts, 1712-1725.

High chest, Boston, Massachusetts, 1712-1725. Japanned pine and maple. Chipstone Foundation.

Drawer detail, high chest, Boston, Massachusetts, 1712-1725.

Drawer detail, high chest, Boston, Massachusetts, 1712-1725. Japanned pine and maple. Chipstone Foundation.

Silk with metallic fibers, 1743-1770.

Silk with metallic fibers, 1743-1770. Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Silk with metallic fibers, 1743-1770. Detail.

Silk with metallic fibers, 1743-1770. Detail. Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“The Rush-Light,” published by J. Evans, 1797.

“The Rush-Light,” published by J. Evans, 1797. John Johnson Collection, Bodleian Museum Oxford University, England.

The Age of Enlightenment has long signified a rational and scientific pursuit of knowledge in the 18th century. The metaphor of enlightenment also applies literally to an era of lightened spaces as well as enlightened thought. Artificial lighting did not become common, much less expected, until early modern times.

An example of this development comes from the Swiss scientist Francois-Pierre Ami Argand (1750-1803) who developed a circular, hollow wick for bright-burning oil lamps following the discovery that oxygen fed flames. Enlightened Americans accepted the technological innovation and eagerly acquired Argand lamps.

Jefferson, when ambassador to France in 1784, wrote to James Madison and Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress and designer of the Great Seal of the United States, that the lamp produced “a light equal as is thought to that of six or eight candles.” Madison, Thomson and Richard Henry Lee each asked Jefferson to procure these innovative lamps, not yet available in the United States, for them.

Learning that these new lighting devices “consume their own smoke - do no injury to furniture - give more light, and are cheaper than candles,” George Washington ordered 14 Argand lamps through Gouverneur Morris, who was then visiting Paris. Some of George Washington’s neoclassical Argand lamps are on display at Mount Vernon today.

Ann Smart Martin will analyze how light was created, augmented, manipulated and, ultimately, how the concept of artificial domestic lighting was transformed in Britain and America from the middle of the 17th century until the invention of the electric light bulb in the 19th century. Dr. Martin will provide us with an entirely different, and illuminating, way to consider the history of decorative arts as part of a larger story of changing lighting equipment and fuels.

Scholars most commonly explain such temporal variations as a parade of styles based on larger cultural patterns of trade, cultural influence, socio-economic purchasing power and prestige. Dr. Martin proposes a more complex system in which the evolution of artificial domestic lighting - before electricity provided a consistently uniform brightness - prompted artisans to make different materials and surfaces that reflected, shimmered, flickered or gleamed.

Just as augmented artificial light changed everyday notions of time (longer “days”) and space (lighted and therefore available for use), it also transformed materials and surfaces of household furniture and furnishings. Many of those innovations processed natural materials into cultural commodities. Workers skinned veneers of fancy foreign woods, inlaid flashy metallic fibers and bits of mirror into wood, textile and wallpaper and layered deep pools of magical lacquer - all to reflect and refract firelight and task lighting. Later, polished flat surfaces and bright metal hardware worked well in more highly illuminated spaces.

Dr. Martin’s interdisciplinary “big picture” approach to decorative arts comes from her education and professional experience in diverse, but related, disciplines. Her bachelor’s degree from Duke University is in history and anthropology. At the College of William and Mary, she earned a master’s degree in American studies and a doctorate in early American history and material culture. Her dissertation was subsequently published as *Buying Into the World of Goods, Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia * (2008).

Dr. Martin has been an archaeologist and historian for sites at Colonial Williamsburg; St. Mary’s City, the capital of Maryland from 1634 to 1695; and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. She has taught at William and Mary, Old Dominion University and Winterthur. She has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the art history department, since 1998 as assistant professor, then associate professor and now Stanley and Polly Stone Professor of American decorative arts and material culture.

Dr. Martin’s numerous publications include contributions of “Ribbons of Desire: Gendered Stories in the World of Goods” to Gender, Taste, and Material Culture in Britain and North America, 1730-1830 (2007); “Tea Tables Overturned: Rituals of Power and Place in Colonial America” to Furnishing the Eighteenth Century (2006); “Changing Consumption Patterns: English Ceramics and the American Market, a Case Study” with George Miller and Nancy Dickinson to Everyday Life in the Early Republic, 1789-1820 (1994); “ ‘Fashionable Sugar Dishes, Latest Fashion Ware’: The Creamware Revolution in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake” to The Historic Archaeology of the Chesapeake (1994). She also contributed to, and co-edited with J. Ritchie Garrison, American Material Culture (1997). Dr. Martin’s current writing projects are Banish the Night: Reflection and Illumination in Britain and America, 1740-1840 (2013) and Very Short Introduction: Material Culture (2014).

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Illuminate Dr. Martin’s topic with candlesticks, lamps and lighting fixtures.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.