Saturday, February 5, 2022

To Make Westphalia Ham

The process of preserving and smoking hams in the 18th century

A couple weeks have passed since my friends and I cut three hams down from the chimney of the recreated tenement house at Historic London Town and Gardens. Following the recipe from three 18th century books on cookery, we explored the historical process of preserving and smoking large cuts of meat. 

Back in October, we collected the meat from a meat-share that we purchased from local Maryland farmer, Mike De Paola (he isn't taking any more orders this year, but still reach out to him if you'd like to buy a part of or an entire hog for next year--this was without any doubt the best pork and ham I have ever eaten). Besides the anticipated freshness, flavor, and bulk-price, what drew us to buying shares of a hog was the desire to smoke part of the meat as an experiment in 18th century foodways. Once we eventually determined on the hams, I dove into researching the history of 18th century hog-preservation.

Westphalia Ham

In both the 18th century recipe books as well as some secondary sources, I kept coming across this term: Westphalia ham. In some recipes, these hams were pickled in a brine (so a water-based curing process). In others, the author recommended rubbing the hams with the salt mixture and letting them dry on a shelf or barrel (or "dry curing"). What both processes agreed on however, was that the cure should be simple (salt, sugar, and saltpeter) and that it must end with smoking the hams. Today, Westphalia hams are still produced and are described by Wikipedia as "ham produced from acorn-fed pigs raised in the forests of Westphalia, Germany. The resulting meat is dry cured and then smoked over a mixture of beechwood and juniper branches." It seems from the 18th century accounts that I've read that what the pigs ate wasn't really what made the ham what it was, but rather, the process of curing and smoking it. At the very least, as Thomas Jefferson recorded in his observations while visiting Germany in 1788, the hog should be small (120-200 lbs) as it "makes the sweetest meat." More than just describing the size, Jefferson helpfully provides an overview of the process of making Westphalia ham while passing through Dusseldorp: 

I observe the hog of this country [Westphalia] of which the celebrated ham is made, is tall, gaunt, and with heavy lop ears. Fatted at a year old, would weigh 100. or 120 ℔. at 2 years old 200 ℔. Their principal food is acorns. The pork fresh sells @ 2½d sterl. the ℔. The ham ready made @ 5½d sterl. the ℔. 106. ℔ of this country is equal to 100. ℔ of Holland. About 4. ℔ of fine Holland salt is put on 100. ℔ of pork. It is smoked in a room which has no chimney. Well informed people here tell me there is no other part of the world where the bacon is smoked. They do not know that we do it.

Jefferson observed that fine Holland salt is "put to" to the pork and then it's smoked. My best guess by "put to" is that the salt was rubbed in as I feel like a brine requires somewhat different language. I also note that sugar and saltpeter--two commonly cited ingredients in ham making--are absent in his description. What's more, he doesn't describe the time it takes to cure the ham. By all accounts, the meat needs to cure for around a month or more before smoking it. In all, I think it's safe to assume that Jefferson was only detailing the parts of the process that were unique (i.e. "fine Holland salt" and "smoked in a room which has no chimney") as opposed to a step-by-step procedure. By Jefferson's description, Westphalia ham is produced from small, one-year old hogs that were first dry cured, and then smoked.

"They do not know that we do it"

When Jefferson visited Dusseldorp in 1788, he made a minor comment to the fact that Virginia was also fairly well known for producing a similar quality ham. Reinforcing his defense of his homeland's hams are comments from two English travelers to Virginia, one in the late 17th century and another in the early 18th. Reverend John Clayton wrote in 1688 that Virginia's hams were "as good as any Westphalia, certainly far exceeding our English.” Half a century later, in 1724, traveler Hugh Jones wrote that Virginia "pork is famous, whole Virginia shoats [young pigs] being frequently barbecued in England; their bacon is excellent, their hams being scarce to be distinguished from those of Westphalia" (primary source quotes from this article: "Setting the table for Virginia ham"). So Virginia really was producing comparable--if not better--hams than those known in Europe as being of the highest quality.

Since their arrival in North America in the 17th century, English settlers participated in a tradition of salting and smoking meats. Salting meat in general is a practice of preservation that most human societies practiced for millennia, but what's interesting about the English custom of salting and smoking is that, by the 17th century, it was done not just to preserve the meat, but also because they enjoyed the flavor. Certainly this applied to other cultures, too but for the scope of my research and application of the process, I focused on that of England.

When you dive into 18th century recipe books and thumb through the section on food preservation, you'll notice that there are myriad recipes for salting various cuts of meat, but smoking the meat is only thrown in at the end of certain recipes (i.e. Westphalia ham) where smoke is part of the flavor profile. Salting is all that's required to preserve meat; smoking the meat afterward is just an additional and optional step in the process (though there certainly is some benefit of smoke as a preservative). Take for example The Experienced English Housekeeper, published in 1769. The author, Elizabeth Raffald lists the following recipes in the section on "Pickling, Potting, and Collaring" (thus a section on food preservation): "To pot beef... To pot ox cheek... To collar a breast of veal... To collar a Calf's-Head... To souse Tripe... To salt Hams... To smoke Hams... To salt Chops... To salt Bacon... To salt Tongues...To pickle Pork" (emphasis added by me). The only mention of smoking is for hams. At the end of each recipe for all of the salted meats is the phrase "hang them up" or "hang them to dry in a dry place." It's not a large assumption to make, therefore, that smoking is unnecessary to the preservation of the already-salted meat; that it was done at this point in history to add flavor.

Another source that reinforces this idea while also explicitly providing a recipe for Westphalia ham is from Sarah Harrison's The House-keeper's Pocket-book, published in 1760. In the section entitled "Directions for Drying, Salting, Collaring, Potting, and Pickling Flesh and Fish after the most elegant Manner," Harrison provides the following recipes: "To dry a Leg of Mutton like Ham... To machinate Tongues... To salt Hams and Tongues... To salt Hams of Bacon... To make Brawn... To salt Ham... To make a Ham... To make Westphalia Ham." Harrison offers no recipes for smoking as a form of preservation in the section on preserving food. In fact, the only mention of smoking in any of the recipes is in that "To make Westphalia Ham." If you follow her recipe to "salt Ham" or the one after that "To make a Ham," then the last thing you should do is "dry it for your Use" or "send it to be dried" respectively. To make Westphalia ham, Harrison writes that, after salting the ham for three weeks, you should "Dry it in a Chimney where you burn Wood or Turf." Smoking was clearly not a method of food preservation in England by the 18th century.

Adding smoke to meat was a method of flavoring it and is argued by other food historians. In her article "MECHANICS AND FUNCTIONS OF A SMOKE HOUSE: A prepatory report for running the John Dickinson Smoke House," author and historian Judith Quinn draws upon late 18th and early 19th century sources when she writes that:

Recommended fuels for the fire include; green hickory, hickory bark, oak, apple, cherry, and maple woods, sassafras, com cobs, sawdust (preferably oak) and juniper berries, tanner's bark, and "horselitter" (straw). Recipes advised against using ash, locust, and pine wood, as well as paper. The most popular fuel by far was hickory wood (in chips or kindling form). Sawdust and straw were more often suggested in English recipes where smoking took place in chimneys, not in a smoke house. Each fire was built according to the taste of the cook and his/her conviction ·of having found the "sweetest smoke". 

Interestingly, the description "sweetest smoke" comes from a 1799 diary written by John Beale Bordley of Philadelphia. He described how "Green hiccory gives the sweetest and best smoke: superior to dry hiccory or locust, ash, oak; and to corn stalks." 

Most 18th century recipes I came across, however, don't offer much for what to use in smoking the meat. Harrison wrote that you should "Dry it in a Chimney where you burn Wood or Turf." I'm not sure I'd use peat for smoking hams, but maybe it does offer a decent flavor. In Charles Carter's The London and Country Cook published in 1749, the author merely offers that you should "hang them up high in a chimney to smoke." Raffald offers the most details on engineering the smoke when she wrote that one should "make a Fire of Oak Shavings, and lay over it Horse Litter [straw], and one Pound of Juniper Berries." Her use of juniper berries coincides with the modern definition of Westphalia ham--clearly it's been part of the process for at least 270 years. So while smoking was done to add flavor to already-preserved meat, cooks were only just beginning to experiment with wood types by the late 18th century to alter the flavor the smoked meat.

One fascinating tidbit of history I discovered while researching 18th century salted and smoked hams was the relationship between smoking meats and American architecture. While salting preserved the meats, smoking imparted flavor. This was so desired that even the rich in colonial America wanted access to a steady source of smoked meat. Judith Quinn writes in her article that

the widespread use of the smoke house is an American phenomenon. In the many primary sources examined on the subject, of those published in England, only one made any mention of using a smoke house. The common English advice was to smoke meat in a chimney. The concept of a smoke house, and even its structural form may well have emigrated from Europe, but the realization of the smoke house as an integral element of the kitchen yard (both rural and urban) was a purely American adaptation.

Anyone who has ever visited places like Colonial Williamsburg or Mount Vernon has surely seen those small outhouse-like buildings and perhaps mistook the buildings to be the elite colonists' privies, separate from the mansion. Smoke houses were built by the elite and less well off alike to produce the smoked meats that visitors extolled. In his article "Setting the table for Virginia ham," author Mark St. John Erickson writes: 

Embraced first by the trend-setting chefs of the French court — then the exiled household of King Charles II upon its return to England — salted meat became notoriously stylish in the late-1600s because of its renown as a favorite among the ancient Romans... And when the English gentry began consuming salted pork — especially hams — in a self-conscious display of their command of the latest gastronomic theories and fashion, the planters of Virginia joined them, adding the attraction of the chic to a meat that had long occupied a privileged place at their dinner tables.

What started off as a revival in the consumption of salted meat among the elite, ended with a refinement of the meat product. Adding smoke to the salted meat imparted a desired flavor that suited the refined palate. Erickson writes that "As early as 1670, the Chesapeake gentry began erecting small structures devoted to smoking meat alongside their country manors and townhouses... soon, nearly every person of means had their own." By the time of the American Revolution, smoked meats--with ham at the forefront--helped to inspire one small aspect of American architecture and preserve a tasty aspect of Chesapeake foodways for future generations to still enjoy.

The Process

There were two methods to prepare hams in the 18th century: the dry cure and the brine. What appeared to me to be perhaps the most common method--and one I was already a bit familiar with--was the dry cure, so I used that when making the hams. Unsurprisingly, all the recipes that offered a dry cure for salting hams agreed on one ingredient: salt. That said, most specify some variation of a "bay salt" or salt produced by evaporating water from sea salt. More particularly, John Bordley explains that "Salt is  produced, generally, by evaporating sea water: and this is by means of the sun and wind, or by boiling the water. The method by sun and wind is slow and regular; which produces bay-salt, (on the fides of  bays or ponds) and... That by fire is quick, and gives blown-salt." The best salt for preserving food, Bordley argues is salt that has been sun-evaporated as they did in Spain and Portugal in the 18th century. Bordley claims that the "spirit" of the salt (the footnote defines this as "the nature of both the vitriolic and the nitrous acid") is lost by the quick evaporation with fire, but retained when slowly evaporated with the sun. He confirms that "This spirit of the salt is essential for keeping provisions; and when extracted and applied to pickle, gives an agreeable flavor: so that bay-salt, both as it has less of the bad substances, and more of the spirit of  the salt, which is an essential of  it, is preferable in its qualities to blown or boiled salt; besides its greater weight in the bushel." By 21st century contexts, I interpreted Bordley's bay salt as being equivalent to kosher salt today.

After choosing kosher salt, I opted to throw brown sugar into the dry cure mix based on Charles Carter's recipe. Sarah Harrison also called for sugar, but unlike Carter, did not specify "brown" sugar, but rather "the coarsest Sugar you can get" which I suppose should be interpreted as unrefined, and thus brown sugar. In modern dry curing, sugar is added to cut some of the saltiness of the finished product and, according to Judith Quinn, "it made the meat tender retarding the hardening qualities of the salt, while giving the meat a mellowness and richness." While I did not come across molasses being used in the dry cure, Quinn does mention in her article seeing references to it being used.

The final ingredient in my dry cure was saltpeter. While not every single recipe for dry curing meat called for it, almost all of them did. When dry curing meats today, it's still recommended that some form of nitrate be added to the meat to further prevent the bacteria which causes botulism. It's here that I did a little research into modern dry-curing to insure that I had the correct ratio of saltpeter to salt as avoiding botulism was a little more important to me than following the historical recipes to the letter. That said, I found the recipes comparable if not perhaps a little more saltpeter-heavy. In modern recipes, cooks use around half an ounce of saltpeter per pound of salt used (plus around half a pound of brown sugar). In addition to preventing the growth of botulism-causing bacteria, saltpeter helps to preserve the redness of the meat, while an exclusively-salt cure would simply turn the meat an unappealing gray. Fortunately, I have a friend who teaches at a local university who had some saltpeter to spare. If you don't have such a connection, you can find saltpeter on Amazon. In all, I mixed eight pounds of kosher salt, four pounds of brown sugar, and four ounces of saltpeter to create my dry cure.

The first real step, after simply mixing the three ingredients together, was preparing the hams and the barrel. Thanks to a friend of mine who lent me a barrel for our ham-curing, I obtained a ten-gallon wood barrel that was coated with pine pitch (the pitch is irrelevant for the curing process but I thought I'd still mention it). The first thing I had to do was break open one end of the barrel for the top access and then drill a couple of drainage holes in the bottom. Once done, I cleaned the barrel with soap and water and dried it out. For the hams, I just pat-dried them and then rubbed a fair coating of the cure mix into them. Where the meat had little cuts in it from the butchering or a little space between the meat and bone, I made sure to stuff those little cavities with the cure. Once coated, I dropped each ham into the barrel, first with a layer of just kosher salt on the bottom of the barrel, then the first cure-coated ham, then a layer of salt, then a ham, salt, ham, and yet again, more salt. The added layers of kosher salt between hams seemed to just make sense to me, having seen how regular salted pork is made, but none of the recipe books suggested that step. I did this out of an abundance of caution, but was perhaps not necessary.

I then stored the barrel in my pantry which is a separate room off of my kitchen and which I can keep closed with a door. The room is unheated and, even here in Maryland, I find that the pantry can get down into the 40-degree range. This is vital for the preservation process because while the meat is beginning to dry out, it still retains a lot of moisture--the salt that's freshly rubbed into the ham has only just started to work on the meat. In the first couple weeks, bacteria can still spoil the meat, so it really must be kept in an area that's consistently below 50. For some, that could be a pantry, basement, or garage, for others that could be a curing chamber. If you have access to a wine cooler fridge, those would work very well since they operate in the 45-55 degree range.

For the first two weeks, I would take the hams out every three days, brush off any salt on the hams, rub fresh cure into them, and restack them in the barrel but in a different order and upside down (to insure even "drainage"). I also had to empty the cookie sheet I left under the barrel which collected the ham-juices. After the first two weeks, I just left the hams to sit in the barrel, checking them only twice in the remaining two weeks (they cured for a total of four weeks), applying a fresh coating of cure and layers of salt each time. 

At this point, the recipe books suggest I now had salted hams. If I wanted to keep salted hams in my pantry through the summer, each book recommends that I then hang the hams to dry. This would be critical in the Chesapeake area in the 18th century since of course refrigeration did not yet exist and fresh meat spoiled quickly. Quoting a "French visitor's" account of Virginia's foods, author and food historian James E. McWilliams writes in his 2005 book A Revolution In Eating: How The Quest For Food Shaped America, "The summer heat restricts them to this diet [of salted meat], for fresh killed meat must be consumed within twenty-four hours else it will spoil" (126). Salted meats were often boiled a couple of times--each time with fresh water--to flush out the excess salt and then served as-is with perhaps a condiment, or sometimes fried or even incorporated into another dish (i.e. a soup, porridge, pie, etc.).

Since, however, this entire culinary experiment was conceived of because of our desire to smoke the meat, the last step was necessary for us, plus to truly make a Westphalia ham, the meat needed to be smoked. In the three recipes I drew upon, they all reference hanging the hams in a chimney (particularly one that's just normally used for heat and cooking--not a separate structure). Interestingly, in the 17th/18th century farmhouse in Brockley, UK, an entire chamber was built around the chimney on the second floor--a sort of U-shaped closet surrounding the chimney, but instead of shelves or clothing racks, there were pegs that protruded from the walls for hanging meat from. The farmer would hang meats from the pegs and then remove a panel from the side of the chimney, allowing smoke to fill the second-floor curing-chamber. The benefit of this curing chamber is that the meat would not be exposed to the heat from the fire on the first floor at all, but would still receive the smoke from it, allowing the farmer to make as hot a fire as they needed for warmth and/or cooking. Needless to say, it seemed common for English cooks to smoke meats in their chimney, either in a specially-built curing-chamber on the second floor, or hanging from a horizontal pole high up in the chimney. Fortunately for me, Historic London Town and Gardens near Annapolis, MD has a reproduction tenement house sporting a chimney with a smoking-rod eight feet above the ground and they were excited to host my friends and I for a weekend of ham-smoking.

The process of smoking ham in the chimney is straightforward. Take the hams out of the barrel, wipe off the salt with a cloth, and then truss them with some twine (or in my case, hand them over to your friend who portrays a sailor and understands ropes and knots). Finally, hang the hams from the rod in the chimney at least three feet above a very low fire--well enough above it that they will not be cooked. There the hams rested from noon on Friday until noon or so on Sunday while we kept a low/medium fire going all weekend. London Town provided us with maple wood which we also supplemented with hickory chunks. On Sunday, we cut down the hams and wrapped them in linen. In total, they smoked for two days. In the recipe books, I've seen two to three days as a minimum smoke-time, but in Quinn's article, she's seen as long as six weeks. In modern smoking, the hams would have been done after about eight hours. The problem with smoking for an extended period of time (more than a few days), is that smoke is carcinogenic--the more the meat is exposed to smoke, the greater the risk to the consumer. We opted for two days because it met the minimum requirement for the 18th century and it's well within the safety limits, vis-à-vis carcinogens. One other note I found interesting in Quinn's article was that she writes that, while smoking meat, the fire should be left to die out for the night--that smoking does not occur at night. 

The Result

After letting my ham sit around for one week, I finally got around to trying slicing it open for myself. I think what surprised me the most was how similar the flavor and texture of Westphalia ham is to a good prosciutto di parma. It's fairly salty (but not nearly unbearable) with a subtle smokiness while also still retaining a gorgeous red color. As a part-Italian who grew up eating prosciutto, the connection was immediate for me, as it was to my non-reenacting friends who commented the same. Having following the recipes to the letter, I feel confident in arguing that 18th century Westphalia ham (and Virginia ham by extension) would have tasted like a modern prosciutto.

If this article inspired you to make your own salted and smoked meat, let me know! Also, please don't hold me liable if you get botulism. I am only writing about my experiment and the history surrounding it, and am in no way an actual expert with years of experience curing meat. Consume traditionally-cured meat at your own risk!

Monday, January 17, 2022

Darkness Visible: The Rushlight


Some objects mentioned in literature are better than others for describing a character who is living in impoverished or otherwise miserable conditions. One such object is the rushlight. Charlotte Brontë paints for us an image in her book Jane Eyre, published in 1847: "When I again unclosed my eyes, a loud bell was ringing; the girls were up and dressing; day had not yet begun to dawn, and a rushlight or two burned in the room." This image was meant to demonstrate to her readers that poor Jane was not living in the best of conditions.

Rushlights are a form of rudimentary candle, made by dipping a stripped rush through melted animal fat. The resulting "wick" may then be lighted on one end and used for some illumination. Since rushlights are essentially thin wicks, they cannot be held in a candlestick holder; a special plier-shaped holder was used instead. The plier was opened, the rushlight inserted between the plier ends at a bit of an angle (some sources suggest 45 degrees, specifically), and then one simply clamped the pliers gently enough to hold the rushlight. In a 1574 dictionary, John Baret described a rushlight in his An Alveary or Triple Dictionary, in English, Latin, and French: "The rushe, weeke [wick] or match, that mainteyneth the light in the lampe." The light produced has been described in primary sources as minimal but sufficient for nighttime activities. In his The Natural History of Selborne, Gilbert White wrote in 1775: "These rushes give a good clear light." This however contrasts with the much more critical observation by Robert Lloyd, an English poet, who penned the following verses in his 1774 Shakespeare: An Epistle to Mr Garrick: "How much we all are in the dark./ As rushlights in a spacious room,/ Just burn enough to form a gloom." In Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio sought to "tame" Katherine by forcing her to accept untrue things to the point that Katherine says: "And be it moon, or sun, or what you please. An if you please to call it a rush candle, Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me." Shakespeare contrasts the sun and moon--obviously bright objects--with a rushlight here, implying the lack of illumination a rushlight offers (to, theoretically, laughs from his audience who knew, first-hand the dimness of a rushlight). In an anonymously written book, published in 1792 under the title Anna Melvil, the author described rushlights along the same lines as Lloyd: "a rush-light, a little twinkling uncomfortable spark, which one is every moment afraid will vanish in smoke, and which the least wind will extinguish." Most sources agree--as my personal experience confirms--that rushlights were not ideal forms of lighting, but they worked if the budget was tight.

The idea that rushlights were used by the poor, desperate, or just plain thrifty is alluded to or outright explained in most of the sources. Gilbert White explained that "a poor family will enjoy 5&1/2 hours of comfortable light for a farthing. An experienced old housekeeper assures me that one pound and a half of rushes completely supplies his family the year round, since working people burn no candle in the long days, because they rise and go to bed by daylight." White wasn't beating around the bush here; he explicitly writes that it's a poor family who uses rushlights. Ellis Wynne, in his 1703 religious allegory, Visions of a Sleeping Bard described a vision of hell in which a group of souls threw themselves down before Lucifer's feet. He wrote:

Shortly there appear twenty demons, like Scotch-men, with packs across their shoulders, which they cast down before the throne of despair, and which turned out to be gipsies.  “Ho there!” cried Lucifer, “how was it that ye who knew the fortune of others so well, did not know that your own fortune was leading you hither?”  No answer was given, for they were amazed at seeing here beings uglier than themselves.  “Throw the tan-faced loons to the witches,” bade the King, “there are no cats or rush-lights here for them, but divide a frog between them every ten thousand years, if they will be quiet and not deafen us with their barbarous chatter.”

It's clear that both Scotsmen and Romani people were both looked down upon in Wynne's time in England (and of course the Romani continued to experience racism since then), so by suggesting that they might be accustomed to rushlights (though Lucifer would not grant them) the idea that rushlights are rude forms of illumination, used by the very poor is reinforced here. In addition to the use of rushlights by the poor, their production also seems to have been the job of the poor (including those who were old and physically-disabled) in addition to women and children who sought to make additional money for the family. White wrote in 1775 that "Decayed labourers, women, and children, make it their business to procure and prepare them."

As referenced earlier in Baret's 1574 dictionary, rushlights are a fairly ancient source of lighting. The earliest reference I could find is from Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD. In his The Natural History, Pliny described a wick made from a rush: "The rush is in general use for making kipes for sea-fishing, the more light and elegant kinds of basket-work, and the wicks of lamps, for which last purpose the pith is more particularly employed." Perhaps not a full one or two foot rushlight, but at the very least, it was used in a similar fashion to the later rushlight. By the 18th century, it's apparent that they have become so common, they were almost a symbol of the poor and social outcasts. 

The reasons for the rushlight being a symbol of the poor are based in both the poor quality light produced, as previously mentioned, but also the cost. Gilbert White worked out the relative cost of rushlights in 1775 by dividing up one pound of rushlights (at 1600 rushes per pound): "Now suppose each of these burns, one with another, only half an hour, then a poor man will purchase eight hundred hours of light, a time exceeding thirty-three entire days, for three shillings... one pound and a half of rushes completely supplies his family the year round." If his calculations are all sound, then a frugal 18th century farmer should be tempted by rushlights, despite the stereotypes surrounding them. White actually praises the frugality of poor farmers who used rushlights over those who bought "an halfpenny candle every evening, which, in their blowing open rooms, does not burn much more than two hours. Thus have they only two hours’ light for their money instead of eleven." That said, rushlights were still a symbol of the poor in the late 18th century.

In an article published in The Energy Journal in 2006 ("Seven Centuries of Energy Services: The Price and Use of Light in the United Kingdom (1300-2000)"), the authors, Roger Fouquet and Peter J.G. Pearson, argue that the price of tallow candles (the cheapest sort of candle, made from animal fat) plummeted between about 1350 and 1550, but that before 1350, they were very expensive. Many families, Fouquet and Pearson argue, made their own sources of light by harvesting rushes and using leftover grease or fat from cooking. Instead of the more expensive tallow candle, these families therefore used rushlights. By the middle of the 16th century, with an increasing GDP in England and all-time low cost of the cheapest type of candle (tallow), more people began using candles instead of rushlights. However, 150 years later, in the beginning of the 18th century, Queen Anne's War broke out and Parliament raised a tax on candles to support the war. The tax varied based on the type and quality of candle, but allowed households to make rushlights without paying a tax, providing that they were "not for sale, of small size, and only dipped once in or once drawn through grease." The result, Fouquet and Pearson concluded in the article, is that there was a resurgence of rushlight use among poor households in the 18th century. Tied to avoiding a tax because of the now-prohibitive cost of candles, it's apparent that rushlights were seen from then on as a symbol of the down and out.

Their Use In Homes

Interestingly, some sources suggest that rushlights were associated with specific uses and rooms. In an article entitled "The Old-Fashioned Rushlight," published in the magazine The Decorator and Furnisher in 1889, the author explains that rushlights were used in the kitchen, as opposed to any other room in the house: "While wax candles illuminated the dining room, the drawing rooms and bed chambers, these others [rushlights] alone were employed in the kitchen." White wrote in 1775 that "Little farmers use rushes much in the short days, both morning and evening in the dairy and kitchen." However, in the article "Rushlights And Rushes," published in Gardeners Chronicle & New Horticulturist in 1874, the author quoted another writer: "I was told by a farmer that he considered one of the peculiar advantages of the rush-stick to be, that on going to bed you could put the rush at a certain length, get into bed by its lights, and then leave it to go out by itself." This certainly suggests that rushlights were not used in exclusively food-prep areas, but could also be employed in the bedroom (further supported by Brontë in Jane Eyre). There is definitely a benefit to having a night light that can remain lit during the night and didn't need to be snuffed out like a candle. Another source from 1894 explains that a rushlight "always burned at night in my father's bedroom... for to strike a light was a long and laborious operation... Why, a burglar could clear off with the plate before the roused master of the house could strike a light and kindle his candle to look for him." 

What's curious to me about these rushlights though, is how long they last. In nearly all descriptions, rushlights are described as lasting for almost no time at all, relative to candles. In White's 1775 account, he timed a 2-foot 4.5-inch long rushlight as lasting 57 minutes. In the same letter, White averages a rushlight as lasting 30 minutes (so perhaps 2' 4" rushlight was uncommon?). In Fouquet and Pearson's 2006 article, they found references to 20-24" rushlights lasting 45 minutes and another at 15-20 minutes for an 18" length. So how could a rushlight be used as a nightlight by one's bed or a constantly-burning source of flame to light a candle with? Perhaps it can be explained with White's description of a watch-light: "Watch-lights (coated with tallow), it is true, shed a dismal one, ‘darkness visible’; but then the wicks of those have two ribs of the rind, or peel, to support the pith, while the wick of the dipped rush has but one. The two ribs are intended to impede the progress of the flame, and make the candle last." I have only experimented with single-ribbed rushlights, so I can't attest to White's assertion that a rushlight with two ribs burns significantly slower (and dimmer), but that could perhaps explain some uses of the rushlight as in Jane Eyre. This is further supported by the 1889 article mentioned earlier, in which the author explains that: "one very narrow strip alone was left from top to bottom as a support for the pith, or two if the dip was intended for a night-light, when it burned slowly and with a feeble flame."

One other interesting point I came across in my research is that some historians have suggested that the maintenance of a lit rushlight was performed by children. The idea is that adjusting a rushlight is a simple task but one that needs to be done so that the flame never burned out prematurely. However, I have only seen one historical reference to this from a book published in 1904 by Gertrude Jekyll. In it, the author writes that she interviewed a "cottage friend" of hers who was in her nineties: "The frequent shifting winter was only just over, and the rushes barely grown, and was the work of a child. It was a greasy job, not suited to the fingers of the mother at her needlework. 'Mend the light,' or 'mend the rush ' was the signal for the child to put up a new length." Perhaps it was one of those tasks passed off to children and just never written about--I just don't feel safe making this assumption for earlier periods without more evidence.

How To Make A Rushlight

Gilbert White has an excellent description of the process for making a rushlight, so let's start here:

The proper species of rush for this purpose seems to be the juncus effusus, or common soft rush, which is to be found in most moist pastures, by the sides of streams, and under hedges. These rushes are in best condition in the height of summer; but may be gathered, so as to serve the purpose well, quite on to autumn. It would be needless to add that the largest and longest are best... As soon as they are cut they must be flung into water, and kept there; for otherwise they will dry and shrink, and the peel will not run. At first a person would find it no easy matter to divest a rush of its peel or rind, so as to leave one regular, narrow, even rib from top to bottom that may support the pith... When these junci are thus far prepared, they must lie out on the grass to be bleached, and take the dew for some nights, and afterwards be dried in the sun. Some address is required in dipping these rushes in the scalding fat or grease; but this knack also is to be attained by practice. The careful wife of an industrious Hampshire labourer obtains all her fat for nothing; for she saves the scumrnings of her bacon-pot for this use; and, if the grease abounds with salt, she causes the salt to precipitate to the bottom, by setting the scummings in a warm oven. Where hogs are not much in use, and especially by the sea-side, the coarser animal oils will come very cheap. A pound of common grease may be procured for four pence; and about six pounds of grease will dip a pound of rushes; and one pound of rushes may be bought for one shilling: so that a pound of rushes, medicated and ready for use, will cost three shillings. If men that keep bees will mix a little wax with the grease, it will give it a consistency, and render it more cleanly, and make the rushes burn longer: mutton-suet would have the same effect.

One other description, a century and a half later can shed a little more light on the process. This comes from Gertrude Jekyll's Old West Surrey: Some Notes and Memories, published in 1904. In it, she includes a description of the process as explained by her 90-year old friend: "You peels away the rind from the peth, leaving only a little strip of rind. And when the rushes is dry you dips 'em through the grease, keeping 'em well under. And my "mother she always laid hers to dry in a bit of hollow bark. Mutton fat's the best; it dries hardest."

This is a fairly easy experiment to try out at home with absolutely minimal equipment. The hardest part was finding rushes here in America. Fortunately, I found a patch near me, aided by a rhyme I read somewhere: "sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses are hollow, what have you found?" Once you train your eye to ignore cattails and sedges, you'll find yourself identifying rushes in no time! According to my sources, the best time to harvest rushes is in August when they have a solid pith and are easy enough to peel. Another important detail is that you'll want to cut the rushes near the ground.

The next thing I needed was some fat. I had some beef suet lying around, so I used that. You could also probably use lard, bacon fat, or perhaps even a vegetable-based lard like Crisco.

After harvesting the rushes, invite some friends over or ask your tolerant/curious spouse to help you peel away the rind on a few dozen rushes. You can use a small and sharp knife or even just a fingernail. You'll notice that the pith gets wispy the closer you are to the top of the rush, so feel free to cut it as low/high as you need to insure the structural integrity of the final product. Remember that, as you peel away the rind, you want to leave one thin strip of rind on it as a sort of spine, or two ribs if making a watch-light. After peeling, dry out the rushes (on cloth or paper towels or even in the sun as White suggests). 

Once dried (I let mine dry on paper towel lined cookie sheets for a day or two), gently melt some fat in a pan. When melted--not boilingly hot, just melted--draw your peeled rushes through the fat slowly, submersing the rush as best you can. You'll see bubbles escaping from the pith and then it'll stop. That should tell you that it's been probably saturated and you can take it out. Let the greased rushes cool such that the fat has solidified. You do not need to pass the rushes multiple times through the fat. I tried this as an experiment and found the performance to be absolutely negligible. Additionally, as pointed out in the 1709 tax on candles, rushlights seem to have historically only been dipped once.

To use them, you'll need something like a rushlight holder, if not an actual one. For just experimenting at home, you could perch the rushlight on a non-flammable surface like a candlestick holder or in a clamp that's been secured to a table and then light the end. Ideally, the rushlight should be angled up at a 45 degree angle so it neither burns too quickly or too slowly. I found mine smelled ever so slightly like bacon, but not enough to really be noticeable, like you would expect from a tallow candle.

There's really not much to a rushlight, but I find the history fascinating as it illuminates that part of the human experience we share in common with our ancestors, no matter how much our technology changes: the need for light in a dark place.

Thanks for reading! Please leave a comment if you enjoyed this article or if you have any questions about the history or the process.