James Monroe owned a plantation called Oak Hill in Leesburg, Virginia. Oak Hill was comprised of 1,200 acres of land and a large country house. Monroe purchased this plantation from his maternal uncle, Joseph Jones, in 1794. In 1814, Monroe began designing a larger plantation house. He consulted Thomas Jefferson and James Hoban for the design of the home. Hoban had previously designed the White House. Oak Hill became a place for James Monroe to relax during his presidency and became his permanent residence after completing his time as president.1
This brass candlestick owned by James Monroe would have been used in the plantation house at Oak Hill.2 These served as important forms of lighting that allowed people to move about the house in the evenings. The candles used in these candlesticks would have been made out of either beeswax or tallow, which is animal fat. Tallow was the cheaper material to use, but gave off a lot of smoke and an unpleasant smell.3 Beeswax, although more expensive, would have been used in Oak Hill’s main house because it burned much better and did not give off an unpleasant odor.4
Betty lamps were originally brought to the United States on the Mayflower by Captain John Carver, the Royal Governor of Plymouth Colony. As an inexpensive form of lighting, this style lamp spread throughout the colonies.5 These lamps worked by placing oil in the bottom, covered part, and running a wick made of cloth up into the handle, which was then lit. While these lamps were quite popular in the United States, they became more commonly used in the slave quarters and kitchens during Monroe’s time. This particular lamp would have been used in Oak Hill’s auxiliary buildings.6
1. Marion Laffey Fox, “Founder’s Farm: James Monroe’s Historic Oak Hill Estate,” Preservation, October 2013, http://www.preservationnation.org/magazine/2013/fall/founders-farm-james.html (accessed March 18, 2014).
2. The James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library, “Candlestick 1,” Object report, accessed Feb 26, 2014.
3. Harold Gill and Lou Powers, “Candlemaking,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series 33 (April 1981), under “Tallow Candles,” http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/View/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports\RR0033.xml (accessed April 8, 2014).
4. Gill, under “Beeswax Candles,” http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/View/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports\RR0033.xml (accessed April, 8 2014).
5. The James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library, “Lamp, Oil,” Object report, accessed Feb 26, 2014.
6. Leroy L. Thwing, “Lighting in Early Massachusetts,” The New England Quarterly 11 (March 1938): 166.