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  Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

Lamp chores evolved

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
A boyhood chore, learned at an early age, involved filling lamps with coal oil poured from a gallon can with a blackened potato pushed down over the spout. The potato was used to replace the lost cap for the spout. A small tin funnel made the job easier.

We also had a coal oil lantern for outside use. Wind kept the glass so smoky mother always said, "We had to strike a match to see if the lantern was lit."

As I recall, we had three or four regular coal oil lamps before buying a Rayo design which had a round wick. It was so bright it hurt your eyes and made your forehead hot if you sat too close. However, it did a much better job of heating mother's hair curling irons than the regular lamps.

Coal oil originated in the early 1850s when a Pittsburgh druggist named Samuel Kier began selling a bottled oil skimmed from his father's salt brine well. He called it "Pennsylvania Rock Oil." A whale oil dealer purchased a bottle of Kier's oil, refined it by heating and found it burned well in lamps with very little smoke.

When Kier heard of the experiment he began refining Rock Oil in a one-barrel whiskey still converting the crude oil into lamp oil. By 1854, Rock Oil was being refined in quantity and was called coal oil and later kerosene, a major petroleum product today.

Early lamps were made of glass to prevent leaking. Later, lamps were made of metal, had larger reservoirs, larger wicks and taller chimneys. The latest lamp designs were gasoline fueled using pressure on the reservoir.

They were dangerous to use without special precautions taken.

Kerosene cooking and heating stoves appeared making coal and wood stoves obsolete. These heating units used one gallon glass jugs with a spring loaded valve on the opening. After filling the jugs they were turned upside down and inserted in place on the side or back of the stoves. There was a trick to the chore to prevent spilling a few drops of oil on the floor.

I even have a kerosene hot water heater in my collection of antiques. It is made of riveted metal, holds about two gallons of water, could be plumbed into any water line and was heated by two burners like the kerosene cook stoves used. It was made to be used in old time barber shops heating just enough water to heat a towel and shave a customer.

Along with my early chores of filling lamps and jugs came the need to clean the graceful glass lamp chimneys. We always kept extras on hand as we usually broke at least one each week. To clean, first it had to be cooled, then turned down horizontally on a table and wrapped in newspaper. The paper was then worked around the glass to clean the outside. Then, the newspaper was wadded up and pushed inside the chimney and worked around until the inside was clean.

I still don't know why the newsprint cleaned the glass so well. If done right, the chimney seemed to glow with lamplight when placed back on the lamp.

Delbert Trew

"It's All Trew"

August 14, 2007 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.


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This page last modified: August 14, 2007