American Lucifers

The Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750–1865

By Jeremy Zallen

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

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7254-0
    Published: August 2022
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-5333-4
    Published: August 2019
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5350-9
    Published: August 2019

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Awards & distinctions

2020 Albert J. Beveridge Award, American Historical Association

Finalist, 2020 George Perkins Marsh Prize, American Society for Environmental History

A 2020 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

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.


"As we face another great transition, from fossil fuels to alternative energies, Zallen's narrative is timely—echoing in the high human and environmental costs of dramas playing out in Nigerian oilfields and the smog of Indian cities."—David E. Nye, Nature

"Zallen has written a truly innovative book that will surely have scholars and lay readers alike burning the candle at both ends."—Technology and Culture

"Zallen writes beautifully. He tells his story through vividly worded, richly researched tales. . . . To remind us . . . that every part of economic life connects us to the work of others, and that work can be very grim and very dark indeed."—The New England Quarterly

"Written clearly, with dashes of literary flair. . . . The connections it draws . . . show lighting to be a useful frame within which to understand how global trade, regional commerce, and professional and domestic labor were coordinated in the century or so before electrification."—Choice Reviews

"American Lucifers is a methodologically ingenious, elegantly written labor history of the light-generating industries that preceded the electric light. . . . Its incisive, empathetic investigation into the daily lives of the workers who bore the costs of technological innovation makes it a unique, revelatory, and highly memorable study of the profoundly transformative effects of lighting technologies."—Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"An ambitious book. . . . handsomely produced, with illustrations and maps, and will appeal principally to history buffs."—Library Journal