It’s not often you find a self-contradictory antique. In fact, if I asked you to name one, I bet you couldn’t!


R-1But here is one: it’s a box for storing rushlights. But what’s so self-contradictory about it? Read on.

The box is beautifully crafted from mahogany, with elegant shaping on the front (fixed) board. The grain is well marked and straight, following the form of the box exactly. A medium to high quality box.

Yet it was made to store the cheapest lighting possible – rushlights.

Rushlights were made from rushes that were soaked in water and the outer layers peeled away. The inner pithy core was then soaked in tallow and allowed to dry. Then they were gathered into bundles and kept till needed.

And when they were needed, they can’t have been a lot of help. Rushlights produce very little light and a few wisps of smoke – I’ve tried them. Not a lot of use in a dark cottage.



R-2A rush nip, usually made of wrought iron by the local blacksmith, held them at the angle at which they burned most efficiently – about 45 degrees. Because rushlights were thin, they burned quickly and needed pushing up through the jaws of the rush nip at frequent intervals.

No wonder that people who could afford candles preferred them: only the poor were confined to rushlights. So why was a fine box of expensive imported mahogany used to store lighting of the cheapest, least efficient sort? The box was worth far more than its contents. Your guess is as good as mine – probably better. The only thing we can be sure of is that a mahogany box for rushlights is a profound contradiction.

Thanks to the treen specialist Sally Honey of Opus Antiques for the picture and the explanation.

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