Filling Coal Oil Lamps on the Farm

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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.

Kerosene cooking and heating stoves appeared next, making coal and wood stoves obsolete. These heating units used 1-gallon glass jugs with a spring-loaded valve on the opening. After the jugs were filled, they were turned upside-down and inserted in place on the side or back of the stove. There was a trick to the chore to prevent spilling a few drops of oil on the floor.

I 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 a kerosene cook stove. Designed for use in a barbershop, it would heat just enough water to steam a towel for one customer’s shave.

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

I don’t know why newsprint cleaned the glass so well. But if it was done right, the chimney seemed to glow with lamplight when returned to the lamp. FC

Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. His wife, Ruth, collects antique dolls, is secretary/treasurer of the Devil’s Rope Museum and the Old Route 66 Association of Texas, and, according to Delbert, “Queen Mother of the local Red Hat club.” The two share authorship of this column, and Ruth is the able photographer. Contact them at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; email:

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