Lighting the Way

What’s in Mrs. Hales Receipts for the Million 1857?

Things to Know

2024: Why do candles and lamps “spirit” when rain is at hand?

2025: Because the air is filled with vapor and the humidity penetrates the wick, where (being formed into steam) it expands suddenly and produces a little explosion.

Anyone writing historical fiction or even a non-fiction piece ought to know about the technology of the times.  Nothing can bump a reader out of a scene faster than having a character light a candle with matches in 1630. Sometimes it’s best to create a timeline just for technology just to keep ahead of the curve.

I’ve been wondering about candles. I have a price list for 1858 for a store in what was Whatcom, Washington Territory.  I know that spermaceti Food Prices 1858candles came from the head wax of a sperm whale and was considered a step above a tallow candle when it came to longevity– it didn’t smell like stinky tallow candles either. But what of Belmont sperm and adamantine candles listed so often in ads in the Northwest and San Francisco?

Turns out they were varieties of candle made from stearic acid processed from either coconut oil or tallow.  First adamantine candles. These candles were made with stearic acid which was separated out of fat in tallow. This process of creating this acid was discovered in 1811 and improved the quality of the candles used in the home.  It was blended into the wax to harden it.  It got its name as it looked like stone.  It burned longer and well.

A Belmont sperm candle has nothing to do with  sperm whale oil.  Before 1830, there was a type of stearin candle made from  coconut oil.  Its main drawback was that it stank when the light was extinguished. Then in 1830, William Wilson of Edward Price & Company in the Belmont section of London began to make stearin candles using a combination of palm oil and coconut stearin.  These candles were considered better than tallow candles, but inferior to adamantine candles. They were, however cheaper than beeswax and spermaceti candles which would continue to bring top dollar.

I’ve been working on a scene in my novel in which the officers from both Camp San Juan (American) and the royal marine encampment (British) get together for a ball after a horse race.  Lanterns have been set up everywhere, the band and dancers up on boards. What a fairy scene it will be, as long as I keep my lighting straight and the night without a cloud in the sky.

When I go back to English Camp in week or so for the grand 150th, I’ll be taking my lantern with me and my flashlight.  Just in case I have to camp back in the woods. English Camp at dusk2

Remembering Gettysburg

What’s in Mrs. Hale’s Receipts for the Million 1857?

To write secretly on a pocket Handkerchief.- Dissolve alum in pure water, and write upon a fine white handkerchief, which, when dry will not be seen at all.  But when you would have the letters visible, dip the handkerchief in pure water, and it will be of a wet appearance all over, except where it was written on with the alum water.

As far as I know, my great -grandfather never wrote a secret letter to anyone during the Civil War, but he did record his thoughts in his small pocket  journal. For all five years he was involved.

One of the most dramatic was at the Battle of Gettysburg, an important turning point in the struggle and most revered.  But you’d never know it from his comments. They seem so calm. Here is what he writes:

Wednesday July 1stGettysburg-Dead-Soldiers-th

Had orders to move at 8 AM. Proceeded on the  road to Gettysburgh–soon heard cannonading in that direction and on arrival found a part of our corps engaging the enemy, about 20,000 strong.  A severe engagement followed. Our forces were driven back by superior numbers.

Thursday  July 2nd

The Rebs hold the town with many prisoners and all the wounded. Have had a busy day in the hospital, that of the 2nd Dev. containing about 300 wounded. Am now in the Rebels clutches as they surround the town.

Friday, July 3rd

Passed over the battle ground of the 1st to look after the wounded. Found a great number.  Spent the day among the  Rebels. This has been the hardest day’s fighting.  The cannonading was terrific.

Saturday, July 4thimages

This morning the citizens and prisoners of Gettysburgh were greeted with the welcome news that the Rebels had left town.  Soon our skirmishers made their appearance and all seemed to feel greatly relieved. There has been no fighting today.  Went to the hospital on the Baltimore pike.

Sunday, July 5th

Spent the day at Div.  Hospital.  News this morning that the Rebs have retreated. Many wounded Rebs came in today.  Were ordered to follow the corps this evening. Rode till after dark then went to Mr Fahnertoes and spent the night.

I’ve read these entries since a girl.  We were never sure what “Am now in the Rebels clutches as they surround the townmeant.

A couple of years ago, I contacted the historian at Gettysburg National Park and he wrote:

” Your great grandfather was indeed an assistant surgeon with the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and was, for a few days, a prisoner under Confederate guard during the Battle of Gettysburg.

The 11th Pennsylvania, part of the Union First Corps, was involved in the fighting northwest of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. Once the battle had commenced, temporary field hospitals were established in Gettysburg, the first being in churches and other public buildings. According to our records, most of the surgeons from the Second Division of the First Corps set up in Christ Lutheran Church on Chambersburg Street, where they treated wounded soldiers throughout the night and during the ensuing days of battle. It was on the steps of this church that Chaplain Horatio Howell of the 90th Pennsylvania Infantry was shot and killed by Confederate soldiers, a scene witnessed by your great grandfather. The town fell to control of the Confederate “Army of Northern Virginia” on July 1 when the Union forces retreated through Gettysburg and established a strong position on Cemetery Hill south of town. The southern forces withdrew from Gettysburg overnight of July 4-5 after which the many hospitals there fell back into control of the Union Army.”

History is so close sometimes.

So I’ll remember WF Osborn, a civilian who went to school in Chicago to become a doctor and eventually became a full surgeon in the Union Army. A native of Fair Chance, Pennsylvania, how did he feel about the battle and his capture 146 years ago today?

The letters are still around, but 50 years later he wrote from Gettysburg:

“July 3, 1913—My Dear Wife: Barring our honeymoon trip I am having the time of my life. Fifty years ago, three hours earlier, I was engaged in battle on Seminary Ridge. Now both sides are in smiles. Three cheers for a united country.

This July 4th, three cheers.

Finding History in the Corners

I got in to history because of my great grandfather William F. Osborn’s Civil War journals. He was an assistant surgeon with the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and was, for a few days, a prisoner under Confederate guard during the Battle of Gettysburg. My grandfather, his son, transcribed them sometimes in the 1940s and 50s. But I got to hold the real ones when I was seven.

Not long ago, I studied the journals more closely and discovered a wealth of information written on the end papers and sometimes upside down in the corners. A good historian always looked closer. In one journal from 1864 he laid out the order of how the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteers lined up in the end papers of the front. Being a civilian in life before the war, he had to figure it out.

Right of Reg D. I. E. C. A. K. H. B. F. G. Left of Reg.

On the end papers on the back, he wrote down the officers with each company.

They were:

A Noble Capt Amstrong 1st Lieu

B Haines capt Stran Phillips

C Cap Shawl 1 L 2

D Capt Overmine (?) 1st L Hall 2 More

E Piper Hammond Briggs

F Chalfant Anderson McCutchin

Perhaps someone out there recognizes the names. Historical research is like peeling an onion or better a collection of dots that eventually connect

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