Filling Coal Oil Lamps on the Farm

It's all Trew: Delbert Trew remembers a childhood chore of filling oil lamps and cleaning fragile glass chimneys.

| September 2007

One of my chores as a young boy was to fill lamps in the house with coal oil poured from a gallon can. A small tin funnel made the job easier. When I finished, I pushed a blackened potato down over the spout, replacing the spout's lost cap.

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 Pittsburgh druggist 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 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. It was then called coal oil and, later, kerosene, which remains a major petroleum product today.

Early lamps were made of glass to prevent leaks. 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 taking special precautions.