The Rushlight or Rush Candle of Old England

From The Rushlight, Vol. 1. No. 4; Feb. 1935

Readers of Shakespeare and Milton, of Scott and Dickens, of Charlotte Bronte and other writers, are probably familiar with the rushlight of English literature, but few of them perhaps have any distinct mental picture of it and how it was made. Figures given here are from the years between 1750 and 1800.

The common Soft or Candle Rush of Europe is identical with the common Bog, Soft or Water Rush (Juncus effusus L.) of our own Worcester County, where it grows freely in wet meadows, and along brooks and the borders of ponds. The Candle Rush has a round, green, erect stem up to four feet tall, filled with a soft, white pith. There are no leaves, but several inches below the pointed tip of the plant is a many-branched cluster of small inconspicuous flowers.

The best time to collect the rushes for candle-making was in the summer or early fall. As soon as the rushes were cut, they were put to soak, so that the peel or outer skin would strip easily. Small children, old people, and even the blind became very proficient in removing this skin, always leaving narrow strip to hold the pith together. When this was done, the rushes were left out on the grass to bleach and to collect dew for several nights; they were then dried in the sun. All the fats and grease of the household were saved, and if a little beeswax or mutton suet could be added to the mixture, it gave a clearer light and burned longer. The rushes were dipped in this boiling mixture, and when carefully done gave a good clear light.

A rush two and a half feet long would burn about an hour and larger ones up to an hour and a quarter. A pound of rushes, weighed and dipped, would contain over 1600 individuals and would cost about three shillings or 1-11 of a farthing apiece. Allowing an average of only half an hour for each rush, large and small, to burn, this would give over 800 hours of light, or 33 entire days. A thrifty housewife could get 5 1/2 hours of rushlight for a single farthing, and a pound and a half of rushlights would last a frugal family an entire year; for the working people went to bed and arose by daylight.

Taken from Worcester Magazine. Its author was Norman P. Woodward, Botanist, and it was sent to The Rushlight by Mrs. Frank H. Dillaby.

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