The next time you’re cursing a burned-out fluorescent bulb, remember that as recently as the 1800s, our ancestors were still using candles and oil lamps that provided a hundredth as much light. When the sun went down, people found themselves in a transformed world — mysterious, sketchy, and very, very dark.
That’s the premise of historian A. Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, a sweeping, lively history of the dark half of the day. Before the industrial revolution, the setting sun ushered in new freedoms and perils: Alcohol (among other fluids) flowed readily, and streets were overrun by carousers, bandits, and, of course, the Devil. The night promoted belief in religion and magic, but it also encouraged people to live close together, build cities, and even read a book now and then. And for the 75 percent of our forebears who weren’t well-off, twilight was a respite from grueling labor and a taste of equality — at sunrise, the worlds of upper and lower class were once again as different as day and . . . well, you know.
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