American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750-1865

American Lucifers: The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750-1865

by Jeremy Zallen

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The myth of light and progress has blinded us. In our electric world, we are everywhere surrounded by effortlessly glowing lights that simply exist, as they should, seemingly clear and comforting proof that human genius means the present will always be better than the past, and the future better still. At best, this is half the story. At worst, it is a lie.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781469653334
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 08/19/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 836,838
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Jeremy Zallen is assistant professor of history at Lafayette College.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Zallen writes better than any historian I can think of, and his close attention to detail lets us see the pigs wandering through the streets of Cincinnati, the horrible beauty of gasworks that lit New York's Five Points, and the working children of Manchester whose mouths were so coated with phosphorous that they glowed at night.—Scott Reynolds Nelson, author of A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America's Financial Disasters

In this meticulously researched, sweeping, and powerful work of scholarship, Jeremy Zallen tells the complex and at times deeply unsettling story of the dark side of the history of light. American Lucifers follows the making of light from whale-oil sperm candles to Lucifer matches. It is a story of the mobilization of enslaved and free laborers into a global network that transformed beef bones, guano, coal, turpentine, phosphate, and hog fat into light. In astonishing detail, Zallen explores how the making of light connected wealthy Quakers who owned the whale-oil ships that fueled the transatlantic slave trade to wealthy slaveholders, coal mining magnates, and Manchester industrialists of the nineteenth century. Enslaved turpentine workers in the U.S. South are but one part of an industrial panorama of labor exposed here that includes West Indian and Chinese guano miners in Peru, enslaved beef slaughterers in Argentina, hog farmers in the Midwest, tenement sweatshop workers in New York City, and child laborers in Manchester textile and phosphate plants. This important book transforms our understanding of the history of lubrication and illumination and the ecological disasters and toxic landscapes left in its wake that stretched across the Atlantic world into the heart of the American countryside. It is a history of capitalism and the carceral geographies, violence, and massive inequalities it produced. As Zallen brilliantly shows, these were not paradoxes but relentless demands integral to the making of light, a hidden history now illuminated and the myth of light and progress demystified.—Thavolia Glymph, author of The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation

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