Tennessee Mountain Stories

By the Light of the Coal Oil Lamp

This is probably the most entertained I’ve been writing any of these blog articles.  I am writing to you tonight by the light of a coal oil lamp.  Well, that and my backlit computer screen – see the humor?

The power went out about 3 ½ hours ago and I’m sure the very-efficient electric guys will have it on before bedtime – at least I’m hoping so.  Still, it got pretty dark in the house and it seemed prudent to light some lamps to keep from bumping into stuff.  And you know me, it got me to thinking…

My grandmother has always been an avid reader and she’s told many times about her childhood and wanting to sit up late into the night to finish a book.  Her father would holler up the stairs, “Put that light out you’re a’wastin’ coal oil.”  And in fact, I’m sure coal oil was a very valuable commodity.  It was one of those things that a subsistence, mountain farm could not produce for itself.  Cash money would be required and as we’ve discussed many times, cash was always scarce on the mountain. 

Now I still find myself referring to these old lamps as “coal oil lamps” but in fact coal oil hasn’t been readily available in the US since the middle of the 19th century when large deposits of petroleumshifted distilleries to process kerosene. 

I tried to find prices of coal oil and kerosene through the years and found a Bulletin of the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting Retail Prices 1890 to December 1913.   This showed the average workman’s household spent $8.15 per year on lighting.  I’m pretty sure that wasn’t an Appalachian farmer for those households spent $326.90 on food annually and there was scarcely a home on the mountain that saw more than $300 in a year – but there’s a whole different story to be had in that booklet.  I also wonder if that would have included some electricity since by the end of this period some homes in larger cities began to have electric lighting.  Other than that information, the world wide web is mum on this price despite reporting coal and heating gas prices. 

Still, we know from experience that those items that the farm couldn’t produce or nature didn’t provide were dear.  Of course, the resourceful farmer could find other options –beeswax candles or lard which will make a smoky lamp if necessary.  Don’t you remember the scene from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind when Scarlett comes home to Tara and the room is lit by a wick suspended in fat held in a gourd? 

I often mention that while I revel in the stories of the good ole’ days there are sure things I enjoy about our modern way of life.  It’s not cold tonight so I’m not particularly worried about the absence of central heat.  And the power will certainly be on before I’m forced to wash clothes on a washboard (which I do own of course).  In fact, we ate a cold supper and did just fine with it so food isn’t even much of a concern (I’m not above building a fire and sticking an iron skillet on it).  But it doesn’t take long without electricity to realize how heavily reliant we are on it.  I have well water so we can’t even open the tap – but of course I’ve got some jugs on stand-by since I’ve been in this situation before.  The house is amazingly quiet without the hum of the fridge, dishwasher, radio or tv.  And children certainly find it hard to understand why their favorite programs cannot be had.

Still, it’s nice to look out and see the stars instead of the security light.  And the quiet is so peaceful.  We need to do this every once in a while both to appreciate the conveniences we take for granted as well as to appreciate the beauty of the world God gave us.