Tennessee Mountain Stories

Lamp Collection

I have collections – completely by accident mind you.  I never go out and think, “I collect this so I should buy it”.  Somehow these collections just happen at my house.  And I love them.

Well last week’s article was accompanied by a photo of a coal oil lamp that I don’t even own.  My Aunt Roberta had it nicely displayed in her kitchen and I snapped the picture just for the blog.  However, the responses I received on Facebook made me think about all of the lamps that I’ve collected and I wanted to share some of them with you.

It goes without saying that in the pre-electric homes of our grandparents coal oil lamps were indispensable.  Yet they were precious and therefore protected and that means they’ve been handed down.  If you’ve inherited one of these treasures, did you ever think about how much it must have meant to the people who had it before?  They touched it every day – or else they went to bed with the sun and didn’t rise until good daylight.  It had to be cleaned and filled regularly and would have set near the center of the home – for no one wastes their only light on a corner.  One reader mentioned that she “got her lessons” by this type of lamp, and many children would have spent time hunched over tablets or slates near the lamp. 

Now if this was my principle means of light I imagine I’d find a few minutes during the daytime to do my needlework despite the quaint picture Hollywood paints of women sewing by lamplight.  However, I know there’s been many pages from The Good Book read by coal oil light for daylight hours are valuable and the quiet family time of an evening are ideal for studying The Bible.

Even understanding how much it would be used and how important the lamp was to the home, there was not a lot of money to be spent on them.  Therefore as with most products, there were models offered at varying prices.  I tried to do some research to learn what I might about these models I’ve inherited and was amazed how difficult that was. 

I did learn that oil lamps were produced all the way through the depression years.  It was after World War II that electrical power really reached to the rural areas therefore there would have been demand for new lamps until then.  In fact, there were improvements being made to lamps well into the 20th century.  The Aladdin Lamps which offered incredibly bright light for their day were first sold in America in 1909.  The burners were imported from Germany where the technology for a center draft burner had been developed just three years earlier.  And of course fuels were always evolving from the olive oil used in biblical times to the refined kerosene that we can still buy as “lamp oil”.

Reader Rose Davis had this lamp with a fluted fount (the part where the oil is held). 

Reader Rose Davis had this lamp with a fluted fount (the part where the oil is held). 

Several folks said they have lamps just like the one pictured in last week’s article.  I’ve seen a LOT of these on the mountain and I imagine it was an economy model.  In fact, I have a pair of lamps with a beautiful scroll pattern around the foot of the lamp and I found the same model for sale at www.oillampantiques.com for about $84.  The site mentioned that it dates from the early to mid-twentieth century.  So that answers one of my questions – I’m always curious to know how old some of these lamps are. 

Replacement Burner - Isn't that pretty?  I wonder if original burners were ever decorated like this?

Replacement Burner - Isn't that pretty?  I wonder if original burners were ever decorated like this?

All of my old lamps have flat wicks – although I recognize they may not still have their original burners because that part of the lamp seems to wear out.  In fact, I've replaced a few burners and I'm thrilled replacement parts can still be found pretty easily for my lamps.  I have new lamp that has a round wick – or rather a flat wick in a circular burner.  This is similar to the Aladdin lamps but those have the addition of a mantel that glows when heated and produces significantly more light.  The center-draft wick is supposed to put out 3-4 times more light than a flat wick.

A repairman came into my home one time and commented on my lamp “collection” – that was probably my first realization that I was collecting them.  It turned out he was an avid collector of antique lights and had a lot of information about their ages and origins.  Maybe one of you have similar information – I’d sure welcome your comments!

This lamp may have no monetary value but it's one of my most prized.  It belonged to my Great Grandma Key.  I don't know that it's ever been burned.

This lamp may have no monetary value but it's one of my most prized.  It belonged to my Great Grandma Key.  I don't know that it's ever been burned.







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.