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Do you think overblown “holiday light displays” (or the desire to ride around viewing them) are a phenomenon of our modern age? Step back into the Regency with me for a moment.

The trail of research we authors do as we work on our stories often leads into interesting nooks and crannies, if not right down infamous “rabbit holes.” Researching the events of April 1814 for my current wip (reading the newspapers of the time, one of my favorite ways to research) led me to chase down information about the celebratory “illuminations” that were hurriedly put up once the news of the Allies’ victory in France and the abdication of Napoleon became officially announced in London. While the references to them in my wip are just casual conversation, I wanted to know what, exactly, my characters had seen!

The news of peace in Europe broke over the 9th-10th, which was Easter weekend of that year. Descriptions of many of the more prominent displays are given in both The Times and The Morning Chronicle, April 11-13, which is just when my story begins. Many of the displays are described as “transparencies” –colorful paper or cloth images which were illuminated by placing a light source behind them. The first two excerpts are from The Times, while the third is from the Morning Chronicle (and went on for two full-page columns on that day):

Advertisements for purchasing ready-made “transparent” illuminations and lighting can also be found in these papers. They tell us so much: glass and ceramic lamps in colors could be purchased or simply rented for a single night’s display, and transparencies were made ready very quickly (kind of like commemorative T-shirts are today when breaking news happens)! You could hire someone to design and come put up your display (just as some people do for the holidays today). And we see these displays were also popular for special events, not just national celebrations of major news events, and not just in the city.

Even though Jane Austen describes illuminations (presumably home-made transparencies simply for decoration) in Mansfield Park and also refers to some in her letters, I hadn’t paid attention to this aspect of Regency celebrations until now. I think the evolution of the form seems a natural one, given the ancient interest in the art of stained glass. People have been intrigued by the play of light shining through color as a decorative art for a long time! Transparencies were a way to achieve a similar effect on a temporary basis and at a fraction of the cost.

Stained & painted glass

Of course, one of the wonders of Internet research these days is the bountiful yield of posts that have been written by others also fascinated with the same subjects. But what also interested me was the perfect illustration of how the wealth of material on the Internet continues to expand over time.

Kathryn Kane’s blogpost (from 2012) is fabulous in describing the process of how transparencies were made, including the fashion for making them from prints or original artwork on a small scale by ladies at home. She also leads into this with some background history on illumination. (I wrote a post about street lighting myself, here). The word “illumination” seems to have evolved to refer both to the displaying of lights themselves as part of a celebration and also the display of so-called “transparent” art set in front of such displays of lights. But at the time of Kathryn’s blog, no one had uncovered, or at least posted, any pictures to illustrate what she was talking about.

By 2016 when Shannon Selin wrote an excellent post in this topic (here), she had discovered a Gilroy cartoon at the Yale Center for British Art, showing a decidedly political use of transparency art, not quite what we’re talking about here, but still giving an idea of the form. The pictures are mounted in a wooden frame, placed in front of the light.


Selin, author of the alternate history novel Napoleon in America, offers more details than Kane about the “how-to” books and designs that were published for the home craftsperson. She says Rudolph Ackermann “published 109 transparent etchings between 1796 and 1802,” and also cites a book, Instructions for Painting Transparencies (1799). She writes: “British engraver and publisher Edward Orme encouraged the fad for transparencies in both England and France with his bilingual manual, An Essay on Transparent Prints and on Transparencies in General (1807).” She includes a description paraphrased from Orme on how to turn an etching or engraving into a transparency. She writes: “This involved painting large areas of color on the back of the print (corresponding with the outlines of the illustration), and then adding varnish to specific areas to give the paper a see-through effect when held up to light. Scraping or cutting away small sections of the surface was another way to enhance the transparency.”

Finally, I found a blogpost from 2018 that shares the writer’s discoveries while delving into the Georgian Papers collection in the British Royal Archives under a fellowship grant. The illustrations she found are delightful and I direct you to Cassandra Good’s post (here) to see for yourselves, because copyright permissions don’t allow me to share them in this post. I hope you will particularly study the 1763 design by architect Robert Adam for what he called a “transparent illumination” to celebrate the King’s birthday. It appears to show huge transparencies erected on portions of the building, which would have been quite spectacular to see, especially lit from behind. These are a far cry from the small, window-pane sized illuminations described in Kathryn Kane’s post and most likely would have been painted on fabric rather than made of paper.

My conclusion is that “transparent illuminations” (to distinguish them from the illuminations made only with candles, lamps or other light sources) could vary in size from the spectacular displays mounted on buildings to the small displays in household windows, and the elaborateness of the design as well as the size and artistry would reflect on the financial resources and inclination of the displayer. This helps me to put some of those newspaper descriptions into perspective.

I think the social ramifications are interesting to speculate about. If you purchased ready-made illuminations destined for your front windows, would you be worried your neighbor might have purchased the same one(s)? Would families have been conscripted to spend their evening hours in those same front rooms to keep an eye on the illuminations for safety reasons? Lamps or lanterns might supply some degree of safety, but open candle flames were always a hazard, then as now, and paper (even the linen-rag paper of the Regency) soaked in varnish or oil would have been very flammable.

Was there also a risk that drunken revelers in the streets might take offense at the chosen designs on display? There are early accounts of destruction and broken windows when illuminations were done in support of partisan ideas or unpopular causes, or were just deemed “inadequate” by fickle mobs. And not just in England. Illuminations were part of special celebrations in America and France in this period as well.

Certainly at least the efforts by the high and mighty were just as subject to censure as they are today. The Morning Chronicle was quick to point out an error in the illuminations mounted by the Prince Regent in April, 1814. The defeat of Napoleon was celebrated as a restoration of the House of Bourbon, the French monarchy (even though in a new “constitutional” form), and many illuminations featured congratulatory slogans in French. The Chronicle greeted the elaborate design shown by the Regent with the snidely oblique criticism:

I suspect that the political leanings of the Morning Chronicle might have been showing a bit, but OTOH maybe it only proves that “you just can’t get good help” even if you’re the Prince Regent. Or at least that the “grammar police” have been around for a really long time!

What do you think? Did you know about these elaborate displays of lights and art during the Regency? When the holidays roll around again this year and you see the displays on people’s homes, will you think about the historical roots behind the tradition? Please leave me a note in the comments! And thanks so much for reading.

LAMP-Icebound Light-nite   This ice-encased lamp by my front door started me on this trip down the rabbit hole, which has nothing (so far) to do with any of my current writing projects. The two-inch-thick ice gave the light shining bravely through it a beautiful glow, and admiring it, I thought, “Thanks for electricity! This couldn’t have happened during the Regency.” Well, at least not without considerable effort to melt, chip, or break through the ice, since the lamp would have needed to be lit.

That made me think about who would have had to do it, and lamplighters in general, and street lighting, and how in the Regency the transition from oil street lights to gas was actually a Big Deal that I’ve never seen mentioned in any of our novels. (Have you?) It’s just one more way the Regency era was the dawn of the modern age. Gas street lights were still in use into the 20th century, and there are still some in London. (I’ll come back to this!)

Our busy London characters never seem to run into any lamplighters, yet an army of them were out there at dusk every evening, with their ladders and long poles, making sure that the city was alight for the busy evening of activities ahead. And in homes that fronted along streets, someone had to light the exterior lamps every night, no matter the weather. (Doesn’t that make you start to appreciate the simple flipping of a switch?) Lamplighters-W PynePrior to the introduction of street lighting (and in rural areas), nighttime excursions depended entirely upon the moon or light you provided for yourself, that traveled with you, plus the light from houses along your route. I ran across a reference to some regulations that required homeowners to provide lights, at their own expense, so it wasn’t just a courtesy! Light you provided yourself might have been a portable lantern, or lamps on your carriage, or even a hired “link boy” who would carry a torch to light your way safely (if he wasn’t in league with a group of thieves). Hmm, that could be fun….

The system of oil street lamps in London and major towns was put into place starting in 1750, so the major changes in city life that came with such improvements –the reduction of crime, improved personal safety, and the glittering array of late night entertainments our characters enjoy: at theaters, pleasure gardens, private balls, assemblies, gambling hells, or even extended shopping hours– had become the norm only within a generation or two of our Regency characters. Travelers to London were suitably impressed, sharing descriptions like this in their writings: “In Oxford Road alone there are more lamps than in all the city of Paris. Even the great roads, for seven or eight miles round, are crowded with them, which makes the effect exceedingly grand.” – Archenholtz, 1780s

Lamplighter at duskThe next big thing, the introduction of gas lighting, did not happen easily, even though gas burned much brighter than oil. As I dove into this topic, I quickly found I had 11 printed pages of notes!! This is what happens –most of you reading this are research junkies, too, so you understand. LOL. Even my attempt at a brief timeline came out too long to put here — there’s so much fascinating stuff!!

So, the short(er) version:

After the discovery of natural coal-gas in mines and its flammability, people began experimenting. In 1739 Dr. John Clayton first manufactured coal gas by heating coal placed in a small retort. More experiments followed. In 1792, William Murdoch, a Scottish mechanical engineer and inventor who worked with steam engines in Cornwall for the firm of Boulton and Watt, and who had been experimenting with practical uses for coal gas, set up a retort in his own home in Redruth, Cornwall, laid pipes, and lit all of his house and workshop with gas, the first to achieve this.

Murdoch went on to become the manager of Boulton and Watt’s steam engine works in Soho, Birmingham, where he used gas to light the main building of the Soho Foundry in 1798. In 1802, Murdoch lit the outside front of the building by gas, to the astonishment of the gathered locals. Boulton and Watt began making gas retorts and pipes, and sent Murdoch to fit up many of the big cotton mills in the North with the new lights (which enabled extended working hours, for better or worse!). Murdoch later went on to invent other useful items, but that’s another story.

Other people were also pursuing the prospects for using gas. Frederic Albert Winsor, a German, came to London with knowledge of a French patent for piping gas. Despite little knowledge of chemistry or engineering, Winsor claimed to be an authority on gas and pursued his ultimate aim of lighting the streets of London. He wanted Parliament to set up a national gas company. Samuel Clegg, a fellow employee (or a student? or both?) of Murdoch’s at Boulton and Watt headed to London, where he apparently teamed up with Winsor, for he is named as one of the founders of the company Winsor eventually succeeded in starting.

1803 — Winsor gave a demonstration of lighting the Lyceum Theatre in the Strand with gas.

1804 – Winsor began to give public lectures about the uses of gas.

1807 –Winsor leased a pair of houses in Pall Mall where he conducted experiments and public demonstrations, trying to attract investors for his plans. He installed 13 lamp-posts in Pall Mall fed by a pipe buried under the pavement from his house. On January 28, he introduced the first gas street lights in the world. The lights stretched from St James’s to Cockspur Street and when lit, observers noted their light had “much superior brilliancy”. On June 4 of that year, to celebrate the King’s birthday, Winsor placed gas lights along the walls of Carlton Palace Gardens between the Mall and St. James’s Park. The gas was again supplied by the furnaces inside his house on Pall Mall.

Many people did not believe the city could be lit in this way, including the renowned scientist Sir Humphrey Davy. Some thought that the gas came through the pipes already on fire, which of course seemed dangerous! Rowlandson did a cartoon of the lighting in Pall Mall: Rowlamdson -Pall Mall Lights

In 1809, Parliament did not approve Winsor’s “national company”, but finally Winsor “and his associates” (Samuel Clegg?) did obtain a Royal Charter for their London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company to supply gas to those cities and the borough of Southwark for 21 years. On New Year’s Eve, 1813, the Westminster Bridge was lit by gas. Gas began to flow through the London streets that year and soon other companies were seeking permission to lay their own gas pipes. The laying of gas lines –think of all the construction in those busy streets!! Is it unromantic to have our characters inconvenienced by the mess?

By 1823, “40,000 lamps covered 215 miles of London’s streets.” And by 1826, “almost every city and large town in Britain, as well as many in other countries, had a gas works, primarily for lighting the streets. In these towns, public buildings, shops and larger houses generally had gas lighting but it wasn’t until the last quarter of the 19th century that most working people could afford to light their homes with gas.” (From the National Gas Museum website:

Apparently the “gas works” were discussed in an episode of Downton Abbey (since gas was still primarily in use in the 1920’s) –I don’t watch that series so someone else might comment!

It’s interesting to note that in 1808, Murdoch read a paper before the Royal Society, staking his claim as the first to harness gas for a practical purpose. He said, “I believe I may claim both the first idea of applying and the first application of this gas to economical purposes.” He received the Society’s Gold Medal recognizing his work.

InLighting Plaque-IMG_23287-Vers-2 June 2007, the Westminster City Council installed a Green Plaque at 100 Pall Mall, London, to mark the the bicentenary of the “World’s First Demonstration of Street Lighting by Coal Gas”, marking Winsor’s achievement.

As for gas lamps still in use, this website: ( has a collection of photos of gas lamps still in use in London and their locations – a surprising number of them! And also a photo of a modern day lamplighter. Who knew?

And another “who knew?” –the connection between street lighting and crime is once again an issue in Britain, where a December 2014 report states that all over England communities are switching off or dimming their street lights to save money. Heading back to the 18th century, anyone? (

Let’s talk about it! Please comment on anything you read here. 🙂

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