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


Join Sigal Museum for a virtual Q&A and discussion with Dr. Jeremy Zallen about his new book, American Lucifers. Winner of the Historical Association of America’s 2020 Albert J. Beveridge Award, Zallen’s work is an “inspired and original study that illuminates some of the darker corners of American history.”

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.

About the Author:
Dr. Jeremy Zallen (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Assistant Professor of History at Lafayette College. His teaching and research interests include United States history; Atlantic world; slavery, race, and capitalism; labor history; environmental history, and spatial history.

Purchase American Lucifers: If you would like to dive into some substantive, thought-provoking nonfiction before our program, copies of the book are available for purchase in the Sigal Museum Store. Curbside pick-up is available. You may also call 610-253-1222 to reserve a copy.

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