Working With Rushlights

by Master Bedwyr Danwyn

Rushlights, while almost unknown today, were in common use in Northern Europe from ancient times through the early 20 century. They are nothing more than a properly trimmed and dried plant which is subsequently soaked in tallow. These long strips are then burned in special holders designed to simplify the frequent adjustment of the rush required as it is consumed by the flame.

Rushes are from the family Juncus, which can be found throughout AEthelmearc (NY State, Pennsylvania and West Virginia). They seem to prefer shallow, standing water, as do cattails. Cattails in fact seem to be the natural enemy of rushes, as they offer superior competition for the same habitat and crowd the rushes out. But, a sharp eye can spot rushes growing in drainage ditches alongside highways, where road crews keep the cattails trimmed back.

Of all the rushes, Juncus effusus is said to be the best, but use whatever rush you can find. Other rush may not burn as well, but the point is that today, as in period, to use whatever you have on hand for free. Rushlights were used for centuries not because they were the best lighting source, but because they were a free lighting source. Rushes will mature in late summer (right after Pennsic!) and grow upwards of six feet tall. Unlike grass, which is flat, rush is round and ends in a point. It is quite straight and green, and is easy to spot once you know what to look for. If you break it open near its base, you will find it solid with pith, not hollow. And, when mature, rush will bear seed capsules at or near the top.

Once you have located your rush, harvest what you need. Only the bottom third or so is usable, so cut it as close to the bottom as you can. Rush cuts easily and can be taken with scissors, pruning shears or a sharp knife. Be prepared to get your feet wet! Take the rush home and either butcher it immediately, or place the bottom ends in water, as with cut flowers.

To butcher, lay a rush out on a flat surface. Your goal is to remove all of the Outer skin except for a strip about a fifth of the plant's diameter, which is left to act as a support for the pith. The skin may be removed either with a single edge razor blade, or even a sharp fingernail (the traditional method) with a little practice. As the skin comes off, you will observe that only the lower portion is solid pith, and that the upper portions contain only whispy pith. This whispy portion is useless and should be broken off and discarded.

The trimmed pith needs to be placed in a warm, dry place to cure. As it dries it will want to curl, which can be prevented by wrapping a bundle of pith around a dowel and tying it fast with string. This will help to make it dry straight. Melt some tallow in a shallow pan, and run the dried rush through it, back and forth. Keep doing this until the tiny bubbles stop flowing from the rush. Then, place the rush on something to dry, such as a cardboard box or paper towels. Once cool, the tallow will solidify and the rushlights will be ready to burn.

To burn your rushlights, pop one into a holder at a 45 degree angle and light. As the flame burns close to the holder, move the rush a little farther out. When it is almost completely consumed, add a new rushlight. Children were assigned this task in period(your children could do this under your constant supervision, of course). Experiment. Depending on the type of rush that you use, as well as its diameter, source of tallow and method of preparation, you may find that running the rushes through the tallow a second time burns better. Or, it might just drip more tallow down your holder. Perhaps weaving a couple of rushes together before dipping is best. Or some angle other than 45. Again; today, as in period, figure out what works best with what you already have on hand or can find nearby for free.

Rushlight holders: I reproduced two rushlight holder types for my experiments in burning rush for light. The first, free-standing, is designed with a weighted clip to hold the rushlight. Click on this link to see this holder burning a rushlight. This particular holder has a little pan to catch the tallow drippings, a useful feature, since rushlights seem to drip as they burn.

The second type of rushlight holder I recreated was copied from a medieval find described in Egan (see bibliography). This holder seems to work very well when held in the hand, making it a kind of medieval "flashlight" -useful for portable light. You can see it by clicking here. And you can see this same handheld holder photographed in the dark here. Note that my experiments with rushlight burning indicate a very short timespan for light from a single rushlight (15 minutes or less, depending on length.).


Rushlight Bibliography

Caspell J (1993) Fire & Light in the home pre-1820. Antique Collector’s Club, Woodbridge UK. Pgs 171-205

Egan G (1998) The Medieval Household, Medieval finds form excavations in London. HMSO, St. Crispins UK. Pg 145

Eveleigh DJ (1995) Candle Lighting. Shire Publications Ltd, Princes Risborough UK. Pgs 3-6

Jekyll, G (1904) Old West Surrey. Longman Green & Co. Pgs 101-111

Hough W (1928) Collection of Heating and Lighting Utensils in the United States National Museum (Smithsonian). US Gov't Printing Office, Washington. Pgs 12-17, Plates 6b, 23

Thwing L (1958) Flickering Flames, a history of domestic lighting through the Ages. Charles E. Tuttle Co for the Rushlight Club, Rutland, Vermont. Pgs 97-101

Thwing L (1975)"“A Note about Rushlight"” In Cooke L (ed) Lighting in America, from Colonial Rushlights to Victorian Chandeliers. Main Street/Universe Books, New York. Pgs 13-15

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