Thursday, August 10, 2017


Oil lamps from years gone by are still in use.

Oil lamps are almost a misnomer. When we say oil lamps today, we think of kerosene lamps. They were and are also called paraffin lamps. Kerosene and paraffin were names interchangeable in the late 1800's. In the early 1800's, we were using whale oil so making kerosene from coal was a major advancement. But even saying kerosene is slowly fading from our vocabulary because today we have "lamp oil".

Many of us have several old kerosene lamps because they were still in constant use well into the 1950's. And then there are the lamps that were patterned after the kerosene lamps. I have two of those made by Fenton in my bedroom. They are old and once upon a time belonged to my grandmother, but not exactly true antiques - just old. But also I have several kerosene lamps that were "modernized". What once held a wick now has an electrical receptacle that holds a light bulb. But throughout my house are the real things. I haven't converted all of them to electric because they are wonderful for when the power goes out.

If you've never used one, you are missing out on one of the beautiful leftovers from years ago. Of course, you don't leave a lighted kerosene lamp unattended. They are dangerous to use if you have a cat or other animal that is apt to knock one over. Also never place the lamp on a middle shelf or where it might be close to a flammable object such as a ceiling. You want the charming glow, not a house fire.

Unlike a candle, it produces an even light that shouldn't flicker very much if at all, and it can burn for hours. Snuff the light and use it again. Today we buy something called lamp oil. It's very refined, burns nicely, often it is colored so that it looks pretty, and it is scented. Using regular kerosene can be stinky, may leave a greasy film, and is considered dangerous. Use lamp oil! Do not substitute. It doesn't matter if your grandpa burned some other fuel in it! Don't do it! Also a jug of lamp oil will last for years if you only use it in one or two lamps for the occasional outage. And it's much cheaper than buying tons of batteries. Keep the cap tightly screwed on the jug so that nothing evaporates and keep it away from sunlight or warm objects. Mine normally is kept in the pantry area next to the cleaning products.

A kerosene lamp emits enough light to read your favorite paperback. (Always keep a few paperbacks on hand for emergencies.) The last major power outage I had was after a hurricane took down enough trees and branches to send my tiny city into a blackout for days. I was one of the last people to get my power restored. In 14 days, I read almost thirty paperbacks. I kept looking at my dwindling pile and hoping my power would be restored before I ran out of reading material. By day six, a good chunk of the city around me was still minus power. Fortunately Starbucks did get theirs restored by day four. But just how long can anyone hangout at Starbucks? Especially when the entire population of the city seemed to be trying to escape the heat, needed to charge their laptops and phones, and discovered Starbucks had power. I'd grab some food, then go to Starbucks for coffee while I recharged my phone. After that, I'd come home and read. I whipped through some flashlight batteries during that time, but I barely used a full "tank" of oil in my lamp. That's because I kept the flashlights throughout the house so I could turn them on and off as I entered a room or ran up the stairs. But my trusty kerosene lamps that decorated my living room burned brightly.

I think my fascination with kerosene lamps started when I was little. I remember both my grandmothers having them in the house. A great aunt and uncle, who had a summer home in the country that didn't have running water or electricity, used kerosene lamps. It was while staying with my great aunt and uncle that I learned how to clean the chimney, trim the wick, etc. (I also learned how to peel a potato using only a paring knife. I think I was four or five at the time. YIKES!)

So when I discovered this tiny little kerosene lamp in an antique store when I was about eight. I fell in love and had to buy it. My mom thought I was crazy. Looking back now, after raising a few children, I understand how young children can latch onto the oddest things. Obviously, I still have the lamp, and I still think it's adorable. What I didn't know until I was probably in my teens was that tiny lamp was not a child's lamp or just a cute little object. I had the real thing.

Traveling salesman used to carry samples of their wares. They were never sold - just samples. What I had was a sample lamp. That salesman probably had a trunk full of these tiny samples. He would go from farm to farm, or ranch to ranch, and convince the lady of the house that she had to have the latest design in lamps. He'd also stop at the dry goods store or mercantile and convince the owner to order a dozen of his lamps. It must have been a pretty tough life for that salesman. But he probably made quite a few sales, because as we all know, it's easy to lose a favorite item to breakage. Carrying a six-inch lamp sure beat carrying a full-sized one. He could carry two-dozen styles instead of carrying six large ones.

If you ever find a sample lamp, scoff it up! They are rare. I've never seen another. It's extremely difficult to know an old kerosene lamp from a modern one. Many that are made today are made from old molds. The best way to assure that what you have is an antique is to know the history behind it. Aunt Sally might have bought hers in 1973, but her daughter only knows it was once her mom's. If that nonagenarian in your family decides to leave you what was once her grandmother's lamps you've got a good chance that it's the real thing. Sometimes you just have to quit worrying about it being an antique. Enjoy it. And from a few new ones that I've looked at online…beautiful, exquisite, phenomenal, fantastic, I'm running out of adjectives, who cares if it's not super old, kerosene lamps are available!

You don't have to wait for a power outage to enjoy a lamp. Electrify one or two for that guest bedroom. Just remember to keep at least one with a wick in case you need it or want it for a romantic evening. Because how else are you going to read one of your favorite author's books if the power goes out? Everyone needs a kerosene lamp or a dozen.

~*~  ~*~  ~*~

I'd like to thank Michael at B&P Lamp Supply, Inc (Antique Lamp Supply) for allowing me to use the photos from the website. For further information, please visit the company site. I'm drooling over those beautiful lamps and their super nice parts. They have great info on the historic old lamps if you want further info.

I think I need this blue one. What do you think?

And that tiny lamp next to the one with the dirty chimney is mine. I promise that I know how to clean a chimney, but it's apparent that I need to do a little housekeeping instead of constantly writing. Also I will suggest that when you are finished lighting the lamp, replace the chimney very carefully. Too many times it is assumed that all four prongs that hold the chimney are on the outside of the chimney and holding it. If not, the chimney will crash to the floor, and I swear it will never survive the fall. Experience is a great teacher. Keep an extra chimney on hand at all times.


  1. I have a kerosene the one next to the tiny one.. on my fireplace mantel.It belonged to my grandmother, and then my mother, and What will I do with it when I need to get rid of so much stuff? I have read that our kids these days no longer want out sterling silver or our crystal glasses or our special china dishware..sad, but true. My daughter won't care about this lamp. And I love it.
    Thanks for an interesting post! And of course I love the photos.

  2. Lots of great information! I've never owned an oil lamp and since I have two curious cats, I probably won't buy one. Otherwise, I'd like to have one for emergencies. It's amazing how long the oil lasted during your power outage.

    1. Compared to the cost of using a light bulb, it's not exactly fuel efficient. But that was the longest span of time that I was ever forced to use alternative lighting. It surprised me. I had to refill a lamp because the wick wasn't long enough and I couldn't find an extra one even though I swore I had one. It was so nice to have that pretty glow and actually be able to see well enough to read.

  3. What an interesting post! I remember that all my relatives kept a kerosene lamp on the mantle for power failures. I didn't know about lamp oil, though. Thanks for that. I also didn't know the lamps came in pretty colors. Cobalt blue is a favorite of mine, so I agree you really NEED that lamp--I do, too.

    1. I mean I remember from my childhood about relatives.

    2. My mom used to do Christmas with them. She's create a whole arrangement around the base. A little like today's wreaths, except hers were fresh cuttings. But at any given time they were put into service. I grew up in a snowy area and it was nothing for us to lose power for days. We often had wet snows and ice storms. They'd slap those chains on the school buses and off we'd go. None of this stay home for flurries. :-)

      Mom kept one lamp in the kitchen and several in the living room. She tried to make them look like they truly belong in those places, but they were only used for emergencies. Naturally there was a drawer full of candles. We also had a huge fireplace that mom could use for cooking with a hanging hook, etc.

  4. I only have one oil lamp, but that thing comes in so handy when the power gives out. Candles are not near as bright as an oil lamp. I can easily read a book by the light produced by my oil lamp, but candles flicker and have a dimmer light. I can't imagine me changing my oil lamp to an electric light. Maybe if I had several of them I would consider doing it with one or two.
    My dad talked about the days when they had no electricity in the home his parents made from an old school house. He laughed about my grandfather McNeal standing by with a bucket of water when they lit the candles on the Christmas tree for fear of it catching on fire. LOL
    This was such an interesting article on that old standby, the oil lamp, E.

    1. The thought of a real tree with lighted candles scares me to death!

      If a kerosene lamp flickers, either the wick is too high or too low. If you just lit the lamp, try turning the wick down, if it's been burning for a long time, turn it up. It doesn't take much of the wick showing to create a nice steady light.If you just put a new wick into the lamp, allow it soak up the oil before lighting it.

      I just think it's interesting that we are still using this bit of history.


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.