Everyday History: 18thc Tin Lanterns with Windows Made of Horn

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One of my favorite parts of writing historical fiction is creating the material space for my characters to inhabit. Sci-fi and fantasy writers call this “world-building” - describing their invented world in such detail that the reader can experience it as a real place. When I write, I’m world-building, too; the only difference is that the world I’m describing once really did exist, and I need to rely on research as well as imagination to bring it to life for readers.

Whenever I visit a museum or historic site, I’m always on the hunt for the small, everyday things that my characters would have taken for granted, but that will be new to my 21stc readers: utensils for open hearth cooking, specialized irons for pressing linen clothes, molds for casting lead musket balls, needle-woven thread buttons for shirts, a wooden bucket by a well. In the course of a story, I try not to stop the action to step back and deliver a lengthy lecture on those buttons or buckets, but I will make them part of my characters’ lives - things they use without thinking.

Colonial Williamsburg is filled with these little details. On my visit there last weekend, I learned more about lanterns from Jenny Lynn, an apprentice tinsmith in CW’s Historic Trades Program. Used throughout 18thc America, tin lanterns were the flashlights of the day, and came in many sizes, shapes, and materials. Lanterns made of tin (the one showed here, a replica of an 18thc design made by the tinsmiths, has been painted) were both inexpensive and lightweight to carry. The hinged and latched door provided access to the candle, which was anchored to the interior base. Lanterns protected the candle from being accidentally extinguished by rain or a gust of wind, and also in turn protected the clothes and hands of whomever was carrying it from the open flame.

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The simplest tin lanterns had holes punched into their sides to permit the light to pass through. More costly lanterns, like the one shown here, had windows filled with translucent panels crafted from the horns of cattle. Horn was the plastic of the 18thc, lightweight, sturdy, and easily shaped into everything from hair combs to cups to the frames of eyeglasses and mirrors. Little wonder, then, that hornworking was a skilled, specialized trade, much in demand.

Once cleaned, a fresh horn could be boiled until it became pliable, and then shaped. For the windows of a lantern, the original horn would be slit lengthwise and pressed flat, sometimes between heated iron plates. Unlike glass panes, horn panels would not shatter if dropped. The candlelight through a horn window would have been a soft glow, but bright enough to light the way.

As practical as the horn panels seem, however, they did have one drawback. Being an organic material, they were a tasty treat for moths and other insects, who nibbled away at a lantern’s windows. In the panel that Jenny is holding, right, tiny insect bites along the edges are clearly visible. In the past, the damage was considered an ordinary nuisance, and the lantern’s owner would simply take the lantern back to the hornworker’s shop and have the panels replaced to prolong the lantern’s life

Now, how am I going to incorporate all that interesting knowledge into my current work in progress?

Many thanks to Jenny Lynn for her assistance with this post.

My next historical novel, The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, will be published by Kensington Books on September 24, 2019. Pre-order now here. (And yes, lanterns are mentioned.)