Starting the new year with the lights of the past

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I’ve been going through some dark days, so I decided to seek out a little light.

The Musée des Éclairages Anciens (Museum of Old Lighting Methods) is housed in a little shop called Lumière de l’Oeil, in the charming 5th arrondissement. While most Parisians are starting to take down their holiday decorations, century-old lamps and lighting fixtures hang festively in the shop’s windows.

Step inside and look up — others are suspended from the ceiling in a crowded, beautiful clutter, more varied in shades and shapes than even the clouds in a typical Parisian sky.

Still more oil and gas lamps stand on shelves lining the walls of the small, cozy main room. Leaning in to get a better view, you’ll probably feel a little nervous (or very nervous, if you’re clumsy like me): Break something, and you’ll destroy a unique piece of history.

Luckily, Monsieur Ara, who’s run the shop for many years, is a welcoming, warm presence. He does offer gentle advice to mind your bag, but doesn’t judge you, even if said bag is enormous and your pockets are bursting with pairs of mittens and you also have a three-year-old boy in tow.

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My husband and I admired the many lighting fixtures around us (including a gas lamp from the Bal Mabille, a precursor to the Moulin Rouge) and chatted with Monsieur Ara as he waited for a pair of customers to pick a treasure to take home. When we asked about the museum, he leaned toward us conspiratorially: “If they leave quickly, I can light the gas lamps.”

This was a great part of the reason I’d come. I had watched his videos on YouTube and was surprised that I had been so naïve. You often hear about gas lighting as a revolution — whole streets and cities illuminated, people suddenly able to live more fully at night, even at home. But when you see what it really must have been like to have just one lamp lit in a dark room, you realize the light was far dimmer than what we’d expect today, especially before the invention of the gas mantle, a sort of chemical-coated mesh covering that made gas burn more brightly.

The customers left, planning to pick up their new lamp the following day. Without a moment’s delay, Monsieur Ara beckoned us to the store’s back room, where he connected a rubber gas tube to three different kinds of lamps and showed us their flames, while briefly discussing the history of gas and early electrical lighting.

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It’s a specialized knowledge that I’m glad someone is here to share. So many things are lost to us. The lighting of a lamp, the naked or shielded flame, the level of illumination — these were such commonplace details to people in the past, but are completely unknown to most of us today. Despite my research, I wasn’t even exactly certain what someone in the mid-19th century would have called the thing you rotate to turn on a gas lamp until I asked Monsieur Ara (robinet in French and, simply, “valve” or sometimes “tap” in English).

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My husband hadn’t understood why I had felt this need to visit the museum. But when he gasped along with me at the sudden, brilliant flash of a gas mantle being lit, I think he got it. Even that quick demonstration gives you a vivid glimpse of everyday life more than a hundred years ago. You discover that dress colors must have looked more muted in dimly lit soirées — maybe this was part of the reason for the 1870’s craze of bright, often jarringly mismatched colors and patterns? - and that people didn’t always worry about open flames in their homes. You hear the low hiss of a lit gaslight and realize that this was what people heard every time they banished darkness in those decades between oil and electricity. The sound was probably as vaguely reassuring as the dull rumble of central air is for many of us today.

That short demonstration shed light on a way of life long forgotten, and I’ll always cherish it, as I do anything that lets me travel back in time.

There was another kind of light I saw at Lumière de l’Oeil. Monsieur Ara is passionate about historical lighting, and eager to illuminate you. He asks nothing in return, whether for the immensely useful trilingual glossary of lighting terms on his website, or his demonstrations in the shop. When you’re there, you feel no pressure from him to buy a lamp (Personal temptation is another story — if it weren’t for the fact that we have that aforementioned energetic three-year-old, we just might have come away with an extravagant, instantly beloved purchase.). When he found out I was researching mid-19th century lighting for a novel I’m working on, he even told me his lighting-oriented library, featuring rare and out of print books, was at my disposal. I wondered, did the warm glow in the shop come solely from the selected lit lamps, or were there also other sources: the light of knowledge and passion inside him, the radiance of human kindness?

To cast some light on the City of Light’s past, find your way to Lumière de l’Oeil. Look for a while at the lamps, and ask to see a few of them come to life again in a dark room.

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is a writer & worrier. She lives in Paris with an eccentric Frenchman, a clever toddler, & a charming cat. Besides them, she loves books, travel, & cookies.

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