by Delbert Trew
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.
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.
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
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
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"
14, 2007 Column