Author Interview: Jeremy Zallen on American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750-1865

In this Q&A, UNC Press graduate student intern Eric Bontempo (@ebontemp) talks with author Jeremy Zallen about his new book American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750-1865out this month from UNC Press.

From whale oil to kerosene, from the colonial period to the end of the U.S. Civil War, modern, industrial lights brought wonderful improvements and incredible wealth to some. But for most workers, free and unfree, human and nonhuman, these lights were catastrophes. This book tells their stories. The surprisingly violent struggle to produce, control, and consume the changing means of illumination over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries transformed slavery, industrial capitalism, and urban families in profound, often hidden ways. Only by taking the lives of whalers and enslaved turpentine makers, match-manufacturing children and coal miners, night-working seamstresses and the streetlamp-lit poor—those American lucifers—as seriously as those of inventors and businessmen can the full significance of the revolution of artificial light be understood.

American Lucifers is now available in print and ebook editions.


Eric: Why did you title your book American Lucifers?

Jeremy: “Lucifer” means “bringer of light” and my book is about the working people who produced and consumed (burned) illuminants in North America from 1750-1865. Lucifer is also, of course, the name of the angel before he fell and became Satan, so a sense of ominous tragedy was also something that interested me for the title. Third, the friction matches that revolutionized people’s relationship to fire during this period were most commonly called “lucifer matches.”       

EB: How did you become interested in this topic?

JZ: When I began my research I knew I wanted to write about a topic that combined the histories of labor, capitalism, energy, and environmental history, and that combined analysis of both production and consumption. At first, I thought I’d write about electricity, but when I started exploring what came before, I realized the far more interesting story was the industrialization of light between the birth of the American whaling/whale oil industry in the 1750s and the dramatic changes wrought by the Civil War. The more I followed the free and unfree workers around the world risking their lives to make light in America, the more I realized that what has usually been told as a history of uncomplicated progress was, at its core, a story of shocking exploitation and struggle.

EB: What kinds of artificial light do you write about?

JZ: Each of the six chapters of the book explores the human politics surrounding the accumulation, production, and consumption of a particular illuminant. The first chapter looks at whale (especially sperm whale) oil. The second chapter examines camphene, an illuminant I’d never heard of before starting this project, which was a combination of spirits of turpentine and highly distilled alcohol (and also the most popular illuminant in the antebellum U.S. Yes, it blew up all the time. But it was cheap. In the next three chapters I explore coal gaslight, candles made from lard, and phosphorus matches. The final chapter tells the stories of coal oil and petroleum-based kerosene.

EB: Evidently, artificial light was a source of tension for politicians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Why is that?

JZ: First, because there was so much money to be made. Illumination was big business and the elites of different regions amassed more wealth from some illuminants than others. Second, governments, especially in cities, became increasingly interested in using street lights to help them police poor and working people at night.

EB: Why did you focus on the history of artificial light prior to Edison’s invention of the light bulb?

JZ: The history of light is usually told as one inevitably leading toward the lightbulb, with very little interest for the technologies or the societies organized around those technologies that came before. It’s not all the deep past of cavemen and fire. There was an industrial revolution in illumination that lasted a century before Edison came along, and it was mostly a story tightly entangled with everything we might think of as the dark underbelly of capitalism: slavery, child labor, mass animal slaughter, disciplining the poor, exploitation of women’s work, dangerous chemicals, environmental degradation. The fact that the story of electric light looks better (but maybe not as rosy as some might believe) doesn’t change the fact that the earlier processes happened, weren’t incompatible with “progress,” and weren’t destined to disappear. One of my chief arguments is that it was the Civil War’s political destruction of chattel slavery in the United States (liberating the enslaved workers so responsible for producing camphene and coal gas and coal oil) that most powerfully changed the trajectory of the history of light, not any kind of internal motive force to be found in the technologies themselves, and not simply because “Americans” just one day decided to “choose” new technologies.

EB: What might surprise us as we learn about this dark history?

JZ: I think readers will be surprised at how central slavery and enslaved people were to the story. I also expect people will be surprised to find glowing children, resistant hogs, and the extent to which most working people experienced these newer, cheaper lights more as burdens than as blessings.

EB: How did the production of artificial light affect the natural environment?

JZ: From the slaughter of tens of thousands of whales to the chemical industries converting bones into ash into phosphorus, or the landscapes sacrificed to build and extend mines or the turpentine “orchards” where enslavers forced the men they enslaved to slowly kill millions of pine trees, the production of artificial light affected and transformed every ecological web the process touched.

EB: You discuss North Carolina’s turpentine camps and the original “Tar Heels.” What is most striking about this facet of the history of artificial light?

“A North Carolina Turpentine Distillery.” Engraving in Harper’s Weekly, April 1, 1876, 265.

JZ: Lots of people know that enslaved people produced cotton. Most people don’t even know what turpentine is let alone that it constituted the third largest export from the antebellum South after cotton and tobacco. Turpentine was once a by-product of the “naval stores” industry focused on producing pitch and tar (hence “Tar Heel”) for maritime fleets. But when people figured out how to combine turpentine with alcohol to make an illuminant, the ensuing turpentine boom transformed North Carolina. The alcohol came mostly from corn-whiskey, but the turpentine came almost entirely from the forced labor of thousands of enslaved men tapping pines in the woods of North Carolina.

And it was slavery like I’d never read about before. Turpentine camps were places where both the arts of domination and the arts of resistance developed through centuries of struggle in plantation slavery broke down and had to be reinvented by both enslavers and enslaved. For the enslaved, finding food and shelter was harder, but temporarily escaping to hideouts in swamps was far easier. For enslavers, surveillance was far more difficult, but distance and isolation made workforces more dependent on the provisions guarded at the center of the camps. The history of producing camphene showed how both flexible and fragile systems of slavery could be.

EB: Do you think there are lessons from this dark history that apply today?

JZ: I’m usually skeptical of reading history as a direct guide to present action, but I do hope readers of American Lucifers come away thinking about a couple things in their own lives. First, and perhaps most obviously, I hope people start really asking where, and from whose labor, all sorts of consumer technologies come from, from smartphones to lights to crayons. Second, I think American Lucifers encourages us to look for workers, and their exploiters, in places we don’t usually look. Most stories of labor are about men, most of them white. A smaller, but good number are about women. But almost all stories of labor are about human adults. Given that both adult laborers and capitalists have relied on the work of so many other beings, I think it’s time to think critically about how any politics of emancipation might include (or even center) those who find themselves on the wrong side of the species and age line. Remarkable as it might sound, the best job any of the “lucifers” in my book had was probably being a whaleman, and whaling was incredibly dangerous work. The free, but under- or unpaid women and children using turpentine and dipping matches, the enslaved men tapping pines or mining coal with their owners dangling life-insurance policies over their heads, or the hogs who had fought so hard to escape the march to slaughter that drovers stitched their eyelids shut were all workers too. Unionizing alone could never have dismantled the structures allowing capitalists (and even sometimes laboring parents and husbands) to plunder so much more thoroughly the life and work of these other-than-white-male lucifers.


Photo by Jennifer Zallen

Jeremy Zallen is assistant professor of history at Lafayette College. Follow him on Twitter.