Monday, March 3, 2014

The Care and Feeding of Kerosene Lamps

(My February column in Two Lane Livin' magazine)

We’ve all seen it: a movie with a frontier setting, people in a log cabin settling down for bed—and then someone will reach over to an oil lamp with a smoked-up chimney and turn it down as if turning off a light switch. End every time I see this I say the same thing: “They didn’t do their homework. That’s not how you put out a lamp. And why is the chimney so dirty? Don’t they ever trim the wicks on movie lamps?”

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.


Quinn said...

Good, clear advice! Thank you.
I agree with you about coleman lanterns...I used to have one years ago for kidding time in a barn with no electricity. Those ashen mantles are amazing, but also as fragile as, well, ash!

storytellermary said...

In "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" there is mention of the children gathering close until the oil lamps were lit . . . and appreciation of electric light.
I used to read it aloud to my Am. Lit. students, stopping often to decipher the stream-of-consciousness (and explain "jilting").
The year of my mom's final illness, I began, stopped when it got too hard, and resumed reading when an obstreperous student said, "the only thing you've done all year that I liked, and you're going to stop?!" (That's high-school-ese for "I really love this. It's wonderful. Please, oh please, continue."

Steve Ferendo said...

I have had kerosene lamps to use in emergencies for many years, yet I never knew how to care for them properly. Great info. Thank you.

Barra the Bard said...

My mother told me about her family using oil lamps on the farm when she was young. Because she had slender, long fingers, she was the one assigned to clean them on Saturdays, the one chore she hated most. It seemed to her that she just couldn't get rid of the smell of kerosene afterwards--and she worried that the boys wouldn't want to date her because of that.

WVSimplicity said...

Hi Susanna, Loved this post! I too have a array of oil lamps that are always ready and handy to put to use. I lived with my Grandma and she always kept them handy for power outages. After reading about you living off grid, I would love for you to tell us some stories about those years! Stories involving laundry, refrigeration, canning and cooking, etc. Growing up while living with my Grandma has sparked a interest in living without depending on utility companies. We have had free gas for over 30 years now, so we try to depend on natural gas in place of electric as much as possible. Anxious to read more about your off grid days and nights!

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