Good, Better, Best—Shedding Light on Antique Kerosene Lamps
By Jolene Renfro
Before the invention of the kerosene lamp you either went to bed at dark, or you lengthened the daylight hours by burning whale oil in a lamp, or you lit candles. As whales became over- hunted and began to be much harder to harvest, and candles were found to be smelly and drippy (if made of inexpensive tallow instead of bee’s wax) new methods were explored to light the night.
The discovery of kerosene as part of petroleum distillation, by Ignacy Ludasiervicz in 1856, ushered in the invention of the kerosene lamp .This new lighting device enabled homes to be brighter, safer, and illuminated at a reasonable cost. Kerosene lamps continued to be popular far into the 1900’s, especially in rural areas, as only 50% of homes in America had electricity by 1925.
Here are three examples of kerosene lamps that gave light to homes where people lived, whether they had small, average, or large amounts of money to spend. We will call them GOOD, BETTER, and BEST.
GOOD The lamps that were all glass were the least expensive and could be quite decorative, but were easily broken if they were knocked over by accident. The tall chimneys were effective at keeping the wind from blowing out the flame, and the mantles which wicked the kerosene up to be burned, were a great improvement on the previous lighting methods. The glass lamps pictured here were probably used in the 1890’s.
BETTER Ray-O-Vac and other companies manufactured metal bases for their lamps and the one pictured is from 1908. The metal could be polished to look like silver and was a step up from plain glass. Ray-O-Vac continues to produce various types of lamps including flashlights even today. An interesting story about this particular lamp is that my father found it thrown away in the town dump in Groveton 40 years ago. He retrieved it, cleaned it, wired it for electricity, and took it to Nicoletti’s in Houston to buy a new glass shade for it. While there, one of the other customers offered him a nice sum of money for it, but he declined, as he was giving it to me. I wonder what that woman would have thought if she knew where the lamp originated!
BEST The best lamp of the bunch is the ornate brass one made in 1890. Again, this lamp has been wired for electricity, but has all the original parts if you want it to be a kerosene lamp again. I am sure it was some homeowner’s prized parlor light, back in the day.
These lamps remind us of a simpler time and whether good, better, or best, still can come in handy when a storm has knocked out our modern electric lighting.