Lighting before electricity featured at Pasto Ag Museum open house

November 16, 2012

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The last in a series of Sunday open houses at Penn State's Pasto Agricultural Museum during home football weekends this fall will focus on the history of lighting before the advent of electricity.

The event is scheduled for 1 to 4 p.m. Nov. 25.

In today's modern society, we take electrical lighting for granted, and most seldom consider how the development of lighting technology provided an opportunity for people to read and work at night, and to extend working hours in a day, noted Rita Graef, Pasto Museum curator.

"This would have been especially important in agricultural communities, where families spent all day tending crops, taking care of livestock or working in cottage industries," she said.

Through antiquity, humans experimented with various open flames to provide light, the most successful employing various plant materials for wicks to keep animal fat burning. Early lighting fuels consisted of olive oil, beeswax, fish oil, whale oil, sesame oil, nut oil and similar substances.

It wasn't until the 18th century that oil lamps were invented. A glass chimney first was added to the oil lamp to shield the flame in 1784, and the first gas light was produced in 1792. It wasn't until the 1870s that electric lighting was invented.

"Come to the Pasto Museum Nov. 25 and experience the soft glow of early lighting from the candle and kerosene lamp era," Graef said. "Our featured guest will be Rudolph Hershey from Dover. For more than 35 years, he has been collecting early lighting and antiques, with many from the 1860 to 1930 period."

Each holiday, Hershey displays part of his collection to share with people who would like to remember or experience the times before electric lights, according to Graef.

"Nov. 25 is the first time the collection will be shown in Centre County," she said. "Hershey will include his earliest piece, a rush light that dates back to the 1700s that is made of cattails soaked in grease and lit. The light will be unlit during the display due to the volume of smoke it produces. However, several of the lanterns will be lit to best display their unique glow."

Graef noted that Hershey is not a stranger to the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, since both of his children are alumni. His daughter, Beth Van Horn, has been an educator for 27 years with Penn State Extension. His son, David, is the owner of Tyrone Milling.

Visitors at the event also can make a pair of Colonial-era wax candles to take home. And to celebrate the success of the 2012 fall open house series, guests will be offered Penn State Berkey Creamery ice cream while supplies last.

More information on the museum, which is operated by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, is available online. To receive information and event reminders via email, send a message to Curator Rita Graef can be reached at 814-863-1383 or by email at

Located on the Ag Progress Days site at the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center at Rock Springs -- nine miles southwest of State College on Route 45 -- the museum features hundreds of rare farm and home implements from the "muscle-power era," before the advent of electricity and gasoline-powered engines.


  • A glass chimney first was added to the oil lamp to shield the flame in 1784. These are kerosene lamps.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated November 19, 2012