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House lighting with oil lamps
in the early 1900s and in Victorian times

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Old Victorian decorated brass oil lamp of superior quality with a pink embossed frosted glass 'shell' shade.

An intact antique oil lamp. photographed at the Willis Museum, Basingstoke. This is a particularly elegant lamp from a wealthy house. The one that my mother describes had a frosted glass globe instead of the pink 'shell' shade and the brass was almost certainly plain rather than decorated.

My mother's written recollections of life in her childhood in the early 1900s told of her grandmother who was very poor and who lived in a much smaller and older house which had no gas. Its only lighting was by candle and an oil lamp which stood in the centre of her table.

My mother wrote that in the morning when daylight came, her grandmother would check the wick of the oil lamp and trim off the charred top with scissors. Next she would top up the oil. Then she would wash the globe with soap and water using a wash leather, and then polish it with a duster. If there were any sooty smears left, she would polish it again and again. This was to make sure that the lamp gave out as much light as possible.

I wanted to know more about the oil lamps that my great grandmother had used. There was no shortage of them in museums, but they seemed either broken or with parts missing or arranged so that the internal workings were hidden.

I am grateful to Bill Hogg and Anne Davey for their explanations of the various parts of the lamps and their functions. All the photos, apart from the one with the fluted shade, were taken from Anne's own collection. Her lamps are originals, and the brass gleams like reproduction lamps simply because she polishes it regularly with metal polish.

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The globe of an oil lamp

Two small old Victorian oil lamps

Small antique oil lamps of the sort used for carrying up to a bedroom.

My mother wrote of her grandmother's lamp having a 'globe'. This would have been a glass lampshade, of some sort, which was not necessarily globe-shaped- see for example the pink 'shell' in the above photo.

The globe served several purposes. It contained the flame which was safer than an open flame; it contained the soot which bright yellow flames always produce; it steadied the light by shielding the flame from draughts and, if it was frosted, it spread the light better.

Whatever the shape, there was a small outlet at the top to serve as a chimney. Larger lamps had separate chimneys.

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The oil

The oil was paraffin oil of the sort that my mother wrote of as being sold in the oil shop. At the base of any oil lamp was a container to hold the oil.

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A roll of flat wick for an oil lamp

A roll of flat wick.


Wicks for oil lamps were more bulky than the wicks of candles, and were bought in quite long lengths.

A length of hollow, tube-like wick for an oil lamp

A length of hollow, tube-like wick.

There were several sorts, depending on the lamps that they were to fit. They were generally flat but there were also hollow circular ones. Some lamps were fitted with openings for two wicks so that the lamps would burn more brightly.

Wicks were almost entirely submerged in the oil. Just a couple of millimetres or so would be supported above the surface.

Wick of an oil lamp at the point of being lit with a match
Glass chimney of an oil lamp being put over the lighted wick

The wick of an old lamp at the point of lighting and after lighting with the glass chimney being put over it. Screen shots from old films.

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How oil lamps worked

Looking down on part of an old dismantled oil lamp with two wicks, showing the support that held the wicks such that short lengths were kept above the surface of the paraffin oil.

Looking down on part of a dismantled oil lamp with two wicks, showing the support that held the wicks such that short lengths were kept above the surface of the oil. The wicks are shown trailing underneath. In a reassembled lamp they would be loosely coiled in the oil.

The oil seeped up a wick into the short part above the surface of the oil and was set alight with a spill or a match. The oil then burnt and the flame gave off a bright light.

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A plain brass oil lamp of the sort used in Victorian times

A simple plain brass oil lamp without its frosted glass globe shade, which had been broken.

Trimming the wick

Wicks inevitably got charred. So they had to be trimmed with scissors to prevent the flames giving off too much sooty smoke. Consequently the lamps were made with a screw or lever arrangement for each wick to wind it upwards. These arrangements are shown on the adjacent photos.

The lamps in the final photo are small more portable ones of the sort that would be used for taking into a bedroom or an outside lavatory rather than lighting a living area.

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The end of oil lamps as the main source of lighting

I understand that oil lamps were the main source of lighting in rural areas up until the 1930s when the National Grid brought them electricity - but see also gas lighting.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

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