As the BBC recently pointed out, our prehistoric ancestors needed to gather and chop “wood 10 hours a day for six days… [in order to] produce 1,000 lumen hours of light… That is the equivalent of one modern light bulb shining for just 54 minutes, although what you would actually get is many more hours of dim, flickering light instead.”
Even when better alternatives, such as candles, became available, it was still prohibitively expensive to light the house for the common person. Further, the first candles were produced from animal fat and not from the clean burning paraffin wax we use today, producing a flickering smelly flame.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that spermaceti candles, which were made from a waxy substance found in the head cavities of sperm whales, and were much less time-consuming to produce, became more readily available. But even then, reading light remained very expensive (not to mention terminal for the whales). George Washington calculated that five hours of reading per night cost him £8 yearly - well over $1,000 in today's dollars.
The light bulb changed everything.