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Kerosene Lamps Help Create the Ambience of an Earlier Time

Nov 09, 2010 09:27PM ● By Anonymous

We had a few kerosene lamps at home for emergencies along with candles and flashlights in case of a storm, but I had never seen them lit. How nice, I marveled, not to have electricity but to live by the natural light of the sun and the evening flame of oil lamps. But we were only house guests for five days, not long enough to grow tired of washing clothes by hand or frustrated by relying on blocks of ice to keep our food supplies cold.

Even today, Monhegan Island has limited electricity, and many parts of the island still light their homes in the evening with kerosene lamps although they may not necessarily be using kerosene. Today you can buy lamp oil to put inside the broad font of a kerosene lamp. The font, which holds the fuel, is large and wide, unlike the tall more vertical font of a whale oil lamp or the small font of a burning fluid lamp. It’s also possible that some of the lamps in use were designed for the other fuels that also included colza oil as well as various combinations of camphene and alcohol.

The world does look different when lit using old technology. The light is not as broad, brilliant, or diffused as that achieved with electricity. This is how our ancestors saw their homes during the evening hours, if they deigned to stay up late. The upkeep of oil lamps was labor intensive. The fonts holding the oil needed to be filled, wicks trimmed and changed, and smoky chimneys washed. If you didn’t have servants to do the work, you used as few lamps as possible.

The first kerosene lamps date back to about 1850, but at that time kerosene was too expensive to be a desirable fuel. All that changed with the discovery of the first oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859. Within one year there were over forty patents granted to inventors for various burners, fonts, fuel covers, shades holders and other specialized mechanisms for kerosene lamps. Kerosene became an inexpensive fuel available to everyone and kerosene lamps came into widespread use. Over a twenty-year period, eighty new patents were granted to inventors for devices to enhance the effectiveness of kerosene lamps. Those patents, stamped on the various components of an antique lamp, make it easy to date and authenticate early examples of old lighting.

In order to make upkeep of a lamp easier, inventors struggled with ways to make it easier to raise and change the cotton wick which when soaked with oil and lit with a match, burns to create a steady light. A broader and steadier flame were among the qualities they were hoping to achieve. The Rochester burner, invented by Henry E. Shaffer in 1888 was manufactured by the Rochester Burner Company and consists of a circular wick with air flowing inside and outside the flame. This is known as a central draft burner and is a modified version of an Argand burner, which works on the principle of allowing air flow within the center of the flame and outside the burner. The airflow of the Rochester Burner is further improved with spreaders and air diffusers.

The chimney used with an oil lamp helps to protect and channel the air flow around the burner. In addition to clear glass chimneys there were decorated chimneys with etching and cutting as well as beautiful round globes and open half globes s to further diffuse the light. Original chimneys and shades have often been lost, but with a little research, counterparts—either antique or reproduction—can be found that will enhance an antique kerosene lamp’s appearance.

Two other popular burners were the duplex burner and the flat wick burners. The duplex works on the principle that two wicks burning side by side create a stronger current of air and enable more oxygen to come into contact with the wicks. The flat wick burner was the primarily used in conjunction with small hand lamps and reading lamps. It utilized the circular configuration of the Rochester burner but the airflow came from the sides of the burner.

If you do decide to use an oil lamp some evenings in place of electricity, remember to never leave an oil lamp unattended. These types of lamps can be easily knocked over and start a fire. On the island, our hosts would give us a lamp to help us light our way to our rooms and then we would lower the wick and the light would dim and the flame would be gone until it was lit again the following evening.