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
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

Jeremy Zallen takes a potentially banal topic—the surging "progress" of artificial illumination in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—and turns it into a riveting, globe-trotting story that encompasses Melvillean whaling vessels, infernal Caribbean sugar mills, swampy turpentine camps in the Carolina woods, explosive Virginia coal mines, reeking Cincinnati slaughterhouses, match factories on both sides of the Atlantic in which child laborers became so contaminated with deadly phosphorous that they literally glowed in the dark, and other nodes in a larger "ecology of violence." At the very heart of this enthralling book beats a booming paradox: Lighting up the modern world has come at the expense of all manner of darkness. Magisterially conceived and enthrallingly executed, this is the best book about capitalism, workers, and the tortured relations between them that I have read in a very long time.—Thomas G. Andrews, author of Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War

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