Grit Blogs > Country at Heart

Old-Fashioned Oil Lamps

Arkansas GirlBefore electricity came into being, rural houses used candles. We didn't, but when there was no oil for either of our lamps, we lit pine torches to see by. They gave such a faint light that you could barely read by them, but at least, we weren't completely in the dark.

There was a family that lived way back in the woods. They and other families used an enclosed oil, outdoor lantern when traveling by night. I was very much intrigued by this source of lighting. The flame had to be completely enclosed (in a glass frame) so the wind wouldn't blow it out. Farmers and housewives used this lamp when they had to go outside for nighttime chores or travel for emergencies.

As far as I can remember, most rural people in the 50s had electricity. We didn't. I was 13 before we got electricity, so during the day, our rooms were lit by the brightness of the sun shining through the house's many windows, and at night, we used one of two kinds of oil lamps. Each variety gave a different degree of brightness. The average, basic oil lamp was the poorer choice for lighting a room. We only used one lamp (at a time) and that was only for the front room. Since the lamps were portable, hand-held ones, we could take them from room-to-room. Every night when everybody was snugly in bed, then the lamp was blown out.

Then, there was what we called the "Luminous Light." This lamp was made by Mr. Victor S. Johnson (1882-1943) who named [it] the "Aladdin Mantle Lamp" and founded the company that made it prominent throughout the world. We used this tall, beautifully sculptured (coal oil burning) lamp. It emitted enough "candle power of white light" and gave such a bright glow that it appeared as though the room was lit by an electric light bulb. When we used this lamp, we really "came out of the dark."

Routinely, we had to trim the wick to get the old, burnt top off of it and clean the chimney (globe) to remove the black smoke residue. Now, these were jobs that couldn't be taken lightly as a broken chimney or lamp cost money that we couldn't afford to part with, so only the older, more experience hands engaged in this task.

Oil lamps could be dangerous, and several times, ours came close to exploding. If you didn't watch the wick carefully, the top part would burn up and fall into the oil which could result in an explosion. One time, the wick burned itself out, but before the lamp exploded, my Daddy grabbed it, opened the front door and flung it onto the yard. Boy, was that exciting!

It was so funny when I first moved to a big city. It was difficult for me to go to sleep with any residual lights in the background. Actually, even now, I still don't like any light in my bedroom as it disturbs my sleep. Sometimes, I put a cloth over my eyes to shield the light. As that old saying goes, "You can take the girl out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the girl." I'm beginning to think that's true.