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Wednesday, 09 February 2011 20:47

Oil lamps are useful… and nostalgic

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Editor’s note: The second installment in George Ellison’s research into the Ghost Dance has been delayed due to the inability to reach certain sources. Look for the article in next week’s Smoky Mountain News.

This article first appeared in SMN in February 2003.

Surprisingly, a recent column about wood-burning cookstoves attracted as much attention as anything I’ve written for years. Folks who live in the Smoky Mountain News distribution area and can pick up the print edition were the most numerous e-mail correspondents, of course. But a lot of people outside of the region must read the publication online as well because at least 10 people living in different parts of the country contacted me to reminisce about their woodstove experiences.

None of the people here or abroad had anything but pleasant memories. None seemed to recall the days when the chimney smoked or there was no dry wood ... or no wood at all. They remembered grandma baking bread or a Thanksgiving turkey baking in the oven or canning vegetables in the fall. Several reported they are still using wood-burning cookstoves, at least on a part-time basis, but for most they are a part of the nostalgic past. Best of all, two people said they liked my “Woodstove” poem.  

So coming up with the topic for this week’s column was a no-brainer. As with cookstoves, Elizabeth and I have been lighting our home with oil lamps for 30 years. Are there people out there who are nostalgic about oil lamps? I’m betting on it.          

The story of how we first started using woodstoves and oil lamps is both complicated and boring, so I’ll spare you the details. Using them isn’t a big deal. Lots of folks living in the Smokies region today grew up that way. And most folks today would much rather use electric or gas burners and switch on the electric lights. But in many ways that count our lives have been enhanced by doing the opposite.    

I don’t know when the first oil lamps arrived here in the mountains. It must have been well before cast-iron wood-burning cookstoves arrived. And before lamps, of course, there was firelight and candle light.

About 20 years ago I purchased in a used bookshop a little 45-page pamphlet by Cecil A. Matthews titled “Discovering Oil Lamps.” It was published in 1972 in England. A note about the author advises that Mr. Meadows “was apprenticed to the ironmongery trade in the late 1920s when there was still a small demand for oil lamps in rural East Anglia ... He has built up a considerable collection of his own ... and gives talks and lectures on the subject.” I never imagined that anyone gave lectures on oil lamps. I hope Mr. Matthews was paid handsomely for his lamp lectures.

Most of “Discovering Oil Lamps” is devoted to illustrations and descriptions of lamp types and paraphernalia. Most are various types of table lamps, including lamps mounted on arm extensions for reading. The floor lamps are very elegant. Harp lamps hang from the ceiling on short metal supports, whereas suspension lamps hang on extended chains.  Bracket lamps are mounted on walls, some with swinging arms. One of the piano lamps is mounted on a gooseneck arm so that light could be reflected onto sheet music. Then there are various hand lamps used in the same manner as flashlights.  

Mr. Marshall also provides a brief history of oil lamps. (There is also an online history titled “Oil Lamps in Antiquity” that can be consulted at www.aworldmall.com/candles/history.html.) In brief, he notes that simple lamps were made by primitive man from a stone with a small depression on one side in which fuel rendered from animal fat was deposited along with a floating wick of bark or fiber. There were also lamps made from shells that used fish oil as fuel. Ancient Chinese lamps consisted of an open saucer, sometimes mounted on feet, with floating wicks. Light was provided in the Pacific region by coconuts with floating wicks. Even the early Greek, Egyptian, Roman and lamps were bowl shaped with floating wicks of some type.  

Indeed, a flat wick lamp that could be adjusted wasn’t invented until 1783.  Shortly thereafter the first glass chimney was produced. Paraffin (kerosene) had already been distilled from petroleum earlier in that century. Presto ... all of the ingredients were available for producing the common oil lamp. Incandescent and pressure lamps came later, of course, but Elizabeth and I consider them to be aberrations that make noise and cast an eerie light,

We much prefer the old-fashioned oil lamp consisting of a glass container, a wick that can be adjusted, and a glass chimney. Of these we have 10 or 12 that are fully assembled and in use. Most are of the table variety and are fashioned from clear or opaque glass. One of the table lamps I bought for Elizabeth as a gift some years ago is made from darkened glass with a white rose design.

Four of the smaller glass lamps are round at the base and fit into brackets that hang on walls. We do not fool with hanging lamps made from metals as they are likely to leak with use and become dangerous.              

Cleaning chimneys and trimming wicks isn’t a big chore, but it has to be done from time to time. We usually get around to it when we notice we can’t see well enough to read at night.

We have found that the tinted kerosene mandated by the state several years ago is hopeless. We could barely light and keep our lamps going with that crud. We always go to one of the local stations selling K-1 fuel oil.

I but have one hard and fast rule regarding oil lamps. It’s called The Ellison Rule For Lamp Placement & Adjustment. Always position a lamp so that the wick adjustment mechanism is on the right side if you’re right-handed or on the left side if you’re left-handed. Doesn’t that make perfect sense? You just reach out and adjust the wick without having to first rearrange the lamp. Both Elizabeth and I are right-handed. It follows that all of the lamps in our home should be placed with adjustment mechanisms on the right side, doesn’t it? Does Elizabeth follow this rule? No. She almost invariably places them reversed so as to bother me.  

Lamplight is a softly luminescent light. Our combined kitchen and sitting area comes to life once the lamps are lit. Many evenings at dusk I cross the bridge in front of our house and walk down into the pasture. Looking back across the creek, I can see blue woodsmoke spiraling upward from the chimney and the windows of our home glowing with lamplight.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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