American Lucifers

The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750–1865

By Jeremy Zallen

American Lucifers

368 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 15 halftones, 5 maps, 1 graph, notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-5332-7
    Published: October 2019
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-5333-4
    Published: August 2019

Hardcover Available October 2019, but pre-order your copy today!

Buy this Book

For Professors:
Free E-Exam Copies

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

Jeremy Zallen is assistant professor of history at Lafayette College.
For more information about Jeremy Zallen, visit the Author Page.


"Looking past the physical properties of artificial light, Zallen sees this transformative technology as an artifact of conquest, slavery, and the rise of capitalism. The march of science is retold as a story of struggles between the workers and owners who converted matter to energy, with an emphasis on the toil and blood that made and unmade their worlds. Rewriting the myths that have characterized the history of progress, Zallen invites us to question whether technology ever provides a “fix” for our most important problems, and redirects our attention to the vital social relationships at the core of human existence."--Vincent Brown, author of Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War

"Zallen argues that the labor and environmental history of 19th-century light has been difficult to see because it is difficult to look at.  From whale oil through camphene, lard candles, phosphorus matches, coal gas, and kerosene, this long-hidden story is one of brutal extraction, human wreckage, and a dangerous re-making of time, space, and labor.  Building on Linda Nash’s concept of inescapable ecologies, American Lucifers tells the story of antebellum light as one not of modernity and liberation from the backwardness of darkness and the barbarity of slavery--far from it.  The ecologies of industrial light ensnared the bodies and labor of enslaved African Americans and nearly-enslaved children and adults across the nation and the globe.  Workers mass-produced light from the bodies of whales and livestock, from pine sap and coal, from guano and cattle bones, phosphorus and sulfur.  After reading this gripping and powerful analysis, no reader will light a match or flick a switch without a profound understanding of the inequalities of risk and violence, and the vast scope of sacrifice, inherent in the antebellum democratization of light."--Kathryn Morse, author of The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush

"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

"This is an exciting new history of light that deftly integrates energy, labor, technology, environment, slavery, and more. The writing is excellent, the research is original, and the narrative is gripping. In Zallen’s skillful analysis, the history of lighting illuminates the history of America."--Christopher F. Jones, author of Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America

"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