(My February column in Two Lane Livin' magazine)
I didn’t grow up knowing about kerosene lamps. Although we lived in the country when I was very young, we moved to town when I was six and my only memory of using non-electric lights was during storms or at Halloween. But when I moved to our new house in West Virginia in 1976, which we built knowing there would be no electricity available, I developed a fast and intimate relationship with oil lamps, learning through trial and error how to care for them properly to get maximum light.
Our first lamps were the Aladdin type that required a delicate mantle. On first lighting the mantle turned to ash that glowed and gave out impressive brightness, but one false move and the mantle disintegrated and had to be replaced. With four little boys running around, there were many false moves. The Aladdins also used a surprising amount of kerosene, and it didn’t take long to realize that while they gave plenty of light, we would go broke trying to maintain three of them. So we turned to the old standby, the standard kerosene lamp. I bought five brand new ones with bright brass burners, white wicks and shiny chimneys.
The chimneys turned black at first lighting, and I learned my first lesson—keep the wick turned low, and keep it trimmed. Proper trimming requires sharp scissors and a steady hand to shape the edge of the cotton wick into a graceful arch. No loose threads should be left and the wick must be shaped right or the flame will be uneven and the result is those smoky chimneys seen in the movies. Trimming the wick often will assure a clean, even, bright burn; if a black hard crust forms on the edge of the wick, or if the wick is old and dirty from being too long in use the lamp will not produce as much light and the chimney will be smoky.
The grade of kerosene used makes a difference in how clean the lamp burns too. Low-grade kerosene produces a yellow flame, smokes a chimney quickly and has a strong odor; it will also stain a lamp if left in the bowl too long without being used . Cleaning the built-up yellow gunk out of the bowl of a lamp that has only an inch or inch and a half diameter opening is no easy job. The wick will soak up impurities in the kerosene and will produce a yellower flame and heavy odor because of the dirty fuel.
We ended up with twelve lamps to light our house. When I lit them at dusk the light looked feeble but then it seemed to make its way into all the corners and by full dark the house was filled with a golden glow. Each week we refilled all of them, no matter how much fuel remained in the bowls. A full lamp burns better and brighter. All the wicks were trimmed, short wicks were replaced, and all the lamp bases were washed carefully on the outside while the chimneys got a good hot water and soap washing. We dried them with newspapers to produce a shine that made them look like new. Occasionally the gear that advanced the wick would wear out in one lamp or another and need to be replaced, and of course chimneys were broken from time to time.
When we finally hooked to the grid in 1989, all twelve of the original lamps were still in operation, and we still own most of them. As each of our sons bought their own homes, some of the lamps moved with them for use in emergencies.
I hope my sons remember the rules for care and feeding of their lamps and pass on that knowledge to their children. Such skills are becoming a thing of the past. Many Two Lane Livin’ readers are old hands at caring for kerosene lights, but if this is new information for you, remember to look at the kerosene lamps next time you watch an old movie. I bet you’ll say, “Look at that lamp! They don’t know anything about how to take care of a kerosene lamp!”
Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.