American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750–1865

Univ. of North Carolina. Oct. 2019. 352p. illus. maps. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781469653327. $34.95; ebk. ISBN 9781469653334. HIST
The emergence of Thomas Edison’s electric light in the 1880s has obscured the history of earlier systems of artificial lighting, from candles and camphorene (a mixture of turpentine and alcohol) to stearine (lard-based) lamps, lucifer (phosphorus) matches, and street gas lights. Zallen (history, Lafayette Coll., PA) details how materials for these earlier lighting systems were obtained and processed, who benefited from their implementation, and who paid for their production and use. The book points in one direction toward regimes of work (whaling, harvesting turpentine, match factories, mining, and slaughtering and rendering hogs) and in another to regimes of labor and exploitation (factories, outsourcing, slavery). Zallen deploys an impressive range of sources—business archives, a whaler’s journal, workers’ diaries, newspaper files, and courtroom records—to produce a detailed picture of the various lighting industries. He is equally firm-footed in his depiction of the inequities of the labor systems manufacturing the goods.
VERDICT This is an ambitious book whose occasional excesses of verbiage can be forgiven because it has so much to tell. It is handsomely produced, with illustrations and maps, and will appeal principally to history buffs.

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