HOISTED FROM ÞE ARCHIVES: Þe Lighting Budget of Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson spent 7% of his Secretary-of-State salary on artificial illumination. For the same share of our income, we can consume 75,000 times as much illumination as Jefferson could in his day...

How much extra utility to we derive from our spending on artificial illumination?

The Lighting Budget of Thomas Jefferson

On December 21, the sun sets at Monticello at 4:57 pm. Civil twilight—when there is still enough light to conduct normal activities—ends at 5:27 pm. By March 21, the sun sets at 6:26 eastern standard time—Monticello is west of the center of America's eastern time zone—and civil twilights ends at 7:52. And on June 21 the sun sets at Monticello at 7:39 pm. Civil twilight ends at 8:11 pm (standard time).

Even in the summer, then, Thomas Jefferson was unlikely to want to go to sleep when it got dark, with the chickens.

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Hence his concern with candles:

1791 September 15: I will now ask the favor of you to procure for me, in the proper seasons 250 lb. of myrtle wax candles, moulded, and of the largest size you can find...

1792 January 24: Myrtle candles of last year out...

1792 November 4: I must now repeat to you my annual sollicitation to procure and send me 200 ℔ myrtle wax candles. I do not know whether the mixing tallow with the wax be absolutely necessary. If not, I would wish them of the pure wax; but if some mixture be necessary, then as little as will do...

For as he wrote in early 1810:

I am now retired to Monticello, where, in the bosom of my family, and surreoudned by my books, I enjoy a repose to which I have been long a stranger. My mornings are dev oted to correspondence. From breakfast to dinner, I am in my shops, my garden, or on horseback among my farms; from dinner to dark, I give to society and recreation with my neighbors and friends; and from candlelight to early bedtime, I read...

Figure that a standard candle will burn for five hours per ounce of wax. Jefferson's annual order of 200 lbs. of candles would thus provide him with a 15000 hours of single-candle illumination—add in other sources of illumination (lamp oil, etc.), and figure 50 hours for an average day, for Jefferson's establishment would not burn one single lone candle.

Those 200 pounds of candles would have cost Jefferson about a dollar a pound, so figure total lighting expenditures of 250 dollars a year. Jefferson's salary as Secretary of State was 3500 dollars a year, so figure that 7% of Jefferson's salary went to lighting. Of course, Jefferson did not live on his salary: he inherited 20 slaves and land in a total estate valued at 12000 dollars from his father, and he inherited a further 135 slaves and 11000 acres of land from his father-in-law in an estate worth perhaps six times as much. He spent all the income and more: he died bankrupt, with assets—land and slaves—valued at $100,000, and equal debts.

For this substantial expenditure—7% of his Secretary-of-State salary—Jefferson received as much illumination as is delivered by a 60-watt incandescent light bulb run for 30 minutes a day. Modern efficient lighting technologies deliver that service for 0.15 cents. Figuring a multiple of 25 for a back-of-the-envelope multiplication of the price level since 1790, what cost Jefferson 250 dollars in 1790 costs us 5 cents: 1/5000 as much. And, of course, we are richer: 15 times richer is the standard back-of-the-envelope number. For the same share of our income, we can produce, buy, and use 75,000 times as much illumination as back in Jefferson's day.

How much extra utility to we derive from our ability to get so much artificial illumination so cheaply?

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And do note that there were those compared to whom Jefferson was a lighting piker. 

William Savage reports:

  • "On one occasion in 1731, the first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, had 130 candles lit in the hallway at his grand mansion, Houghton Hall in Norfolk, with another 50 in the saloon."

  • "In 1712, the Duchess of Montague was supposed to have paid £200.00 for candles for an assembly lasting one night." That is 1000 dollars. She was Mary Churchill Montagu, the youngest daughter of British War of the Spanish Succession Generalissimo John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, and his wife Sarah Jennings.

  • "It was claimed the Duke of Bedford illuminated an event of his with 1,000 wax candles, at a cost of £603.00!" That is 3000 dollars. He was John Russell, born 1710, Duke from 1731, First Lord of the Admiralty 1744-48, followed by other offices culminating in Lord President of the Council 1763-5.


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