Oil lamps cast a holiday glow

My favorite lamp, sitting on the piano for Christmas. Mary Lou Dilley and I argued over this beautiful pink lamp at an auction sale many years ago. I was so in love with it that she finally stopped bidding against me and “let me have it.” She thought that it was probably from the 20s. I never look at it without smiling about those good old days of going antique hunting together. L. D. Bennett photo

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

Getting ready for the holidays at my house usually involves cleaning my oil lamps, trimming their wicks and putting them back on the mantle or the table surrounded by festive greenery of the season.

They are a prominent part of my décor in every season, but at Christmastime, they seem to shine brighter and mean more to me than at any other time of the year.

They bring me memories of my mother, who gave me a few of them and of her dear friend (and mine, as well), Mary Lou Dilley, who helped me pick out nice lamps and even gave me one of her own.

Mary Lou was famous for her love of lamps and for her lamp collection.

One time I asked her how many lamps she had and when she said she really didn’t know, I made an inventory.

I went all around the house, downstairs and upstairs, and finally came back with a count of more than 200.

My little collection can’t hold a candle – or a lamp – to Mary Lou’s, but I love it.

Around Pocahontas Coun-ty, people have always used oil lamps.

Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents – and as far back as there were people here – all lived with oil lamps.
Even today, oil lamps are essential for country living.

Whether you know a lamp’s provenance or not, it represents history.

Every home can benefit from their charm and character.

And they can also be essential emergency equipment when the electricity fails.

Mom told me that her mother’s first job every morning, after cleaning up from breakfast, was trimming the wicks and washing the globes of the lamps.

She also told Mom that in the winter, when she was young, she’d go to bed early, but would sit up in bed, reading by the light of a lamp.

Although Granddaddy Hinkle approved of her love of books, he was known to be extremely thrifty.

When he got ready for bed, he would holler up the stairs, “Put that light out, girl! You’re a’wastin’  coal oil.”

It was one of those things that a farm family couldn’t produce for themselves.

Coal oil had to be bought with cash money, which was always “scarce as hen’s teeth.”

By the early 20th century, coal oil was being replaced by kerosene.

And kerosene wasn’t cheap either.

A well-provisioned household could make do nicely with beeswax candles, but, if all else failed, it would come down to burning lard in the lamps.

Lard was fairly easy to come by, but it made for a smelly and smoky lamp.

Remember when Scarlett comes home to Tara in Gone With the Wind  and finds that her family has fallen on hard times and her mother has passed away?

That stark, sad scene was illustrated so well because the only light in the room was cast by a tiny homemade gourd lamp with a wick that, I assumed, was suspended in lard.

It was practically the definition of hard times.

Archeologists have discovered paintings depicting baked clay lamps and remnants of those lamps, called Classical lamps, which were hung indoors in Greece and Cyprus and were followed by “float lamps” of glass or metal, made in the seventh and eighth century.

Lamps reigned supreme as our source of lighting from earliest times in the cradle of civilization in Israel and the Middle East to primitive Inuit fat lamps to our modern electric light bulb lamps.

And not much changed in the lighting department for thousands of years.

Since humans were – and still are – dependent on artificial light for getting around in the dark, it’s interesting to note just how long it took us to develop really efficient lamps.

Oil was being burnt in lamps, with a simple wick protruding from a rock, shell or pottery container of whale oil or vegetable oil, at least since the Paleolithic age.

Archaeologists tell us that the lamps mentioned in the New Testament, for instance, in the parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins, would have been the exact same type used in the American colonies, known as “betty” or “phoebe” lamps.

From prehistoric times until the 1700s, the common lamp would have still been a small, shallow bowl, filled with oil or grease in which a wick or rag would have been floated.

Finally, better lamps began to be used between three and four hundred years ago.

The average lamp collector, who wants an antique lamp for practical use in the home, will probably leave the floating wick types to the academics, serious collectors, or museums and choose either a whale oil or kerosene lamp.

Of the lamps designed for use with kerosene, those made in overlay glass were very beautiful and are still much sought after by collectors.

Their best years were from 1860 to 1880. By 1900, when gas lighting was common in urban homes and seen in a few homes here in the mountains, suddenly electricity was introduced.

When electricity made its way into our homes, it was common for the electric light fittings to be made out of converted chandeliers and sconces with light bulbs protruding from imitation candles.

The same was true for many treasured family heirloom oil lamps, which had been converted by thrifty American households from oil to kerosene and finally to electricity, illustrating a nostalgia for the candle and the oil lamp which we still feel today.

For those of you in the market for an oil lamp of your own, or maybe an addition to your collection, there are a few places where you can find them locally.

Gunter’s General Store has an array of old oil lamps.

C. J. Richardson Hardware sells a decorative oil lamp and oil for all oil lamps.

Glades Building Supply carries at least one design of oil lamp and oil, as well.

I recommend that you have at least one in your home – if not for the old-fashioned beauty of its soft light and the pleasure of “lighting the lamp” during the holidays, then at least for use during an electrical outage.

We have lots of reasons to love our lamps.

They cast such a lovely light.

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