Saturday, July 17, 2021

Oil lamps Past and Present

Today I continue my posts from antiques about my house. More specifically, the ones from my husband’s treasure trove. Below is a tiny oil lamp. It was Charley’s mother’s nightlight as a child. She grew up on a farm without electricity and indoor plumbing. 

Far from the city, the night sky could be pitch black. Unless there was moonlight filtering through the window, this mini-oil lamp was all the illumination she and her sisters had when they woke in the night. And an oil lamp can burn safely for hours.

Oil lamps today in western cultures are merely for ambiance in our homes. However, they date back thousands of years. Often formed from pottery or metal, these lamps were a vital part of a family home.

They were and are still used in many religions as part of worship. These lamps most often burned olive oil. The lamps symbolized spirituality. The parable Jesus told of the Ten Virgins and their oil lamps illustrates this point.

Thomas Jefferson said the Argand lamp, invented in 1784, burned brighter than six to eight candles. The oil reservoir was above the wick so the heavier oils could fill the wick more easily. These lamps would burn a variety of oils: nut oils, seed oils, and fish oil such as shark liver, whale and seal blubber. At first only the wealthy could afford them, over time the middle class could also afford them.

Sample of Argand lamp

Shortage of whale oil brings another change

Whaling was a very lucrative business, as oil lamps caught on as illumination all over the world. As the whale population declined and the price of the whale oil went up, camphene (a blend of turpentine and ethanol) was invented. It was much more economical but was smokey. After the Civil War, the tax on all things alcohol to help pay for the war once again made lamp fuel more costly. Thus, the invention of kerosene. Kerosene had a whiter flame, burned cleaner, and was far less expensive than any other fuel. Because it was lighter weight, the reservoir was below the wick and gave off less of a shadow than the Argand variety. 

Kerosene Lamps

kerosene lamp

These lamps had wicks (a cotton rope or belt,) that rested in the oil. When you adjusted the knob, the height of the wick would move up for brighter light or down for dimmer. Only, you had to be careful not to raise the wick too much lest it caused the lamp to smoke.

Kerosene lamps in use today are usually decorative. Manufacturers color the oil lamp fuel (kerosene) to match home décor.

Decorative kerosene lamp has colored oils to match the decor.  


Flashlights and cell phone apps have replaced the need to carry a lantern outside at night. But when the power goes out, a kerosene lamp illuminates the darkness nicely.

Have you ever used an oil lamp?

Cindy Ervin Huff is an Award-winning author of Historical and Contemporary Romance. She loves infusing hope into her stories of broken people. She addicted to reading and chocolate. Her idea of a vacation is visiting historical sites and an ideal date with her hubby of almost fifty years would be live theater.

Visit her at

Rescuing Her Heart

As her husband's evil deeds haunt a mail-order bride from the grave, can she learn to trust again and open her heart to true love? Jed has his own nightmares from a POW camp and understands Delilah better than she knows herself. Can two broken people form a forever bond?

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  1. Thanks for posting today! We've always had oil lamps for decorative purposes, until we have downsized and there isn't really a high safe place to keep them. I actually like the look of that little clay lamp. Nowadays we use battery-powered lights. I don't trust myself to not accidentally bump into the oil lamp.

  2. thanks for your post today. how cool to have some of these antiques. and to know that your mother in law had one and passed it down. mom always had a lamp like the top left when we went camping. ohh im aging myself. lol my husband and i had one in our bedroom for many years. just that little bit of light needed when one of us got up.