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Facilities in homes, early-mid 20th Century


Paraffin heaters for heating homes

paraffin heater for domestic use

Paraffin heaters heated by boiling paraffin, also known as oil. This page considers their advantages and disadvantages from the viewpoint of users in times when central heating was unknown in ordinary houses.


By the webmaster: her early recollections with further research and contributions from others who lived at the time

Oil heaters which burnt paraffin were extremely popular in the past and they came in a range of shapes, sizes and colours. In fact my grandmother always called the ironmongers / hardware shop the 'oil shop' as oil was its most common sale. There were of course no retail parks of large shops, so people had to go to a range of different shops to buy everything they wanted.

Advantages of oil heaters

Oil heaters had obvious advantages: They were portable, and 'portable heaters' was an alternative name for them. Unlike coal fires and electric fires they didn't need a chimney or an electric socket. Also paraffin oil was relatively cheap.

The disadvantages were less immediately obvious but perhaps more significant, as explained in the next section.

Disadvantages of paraffin heaters

There were major disadvantages of oil heaters which unfortunately few ordinary people really understood.

Common form of paraffin heater / oil stove in the mid 20th century - British

The most common form of oil heater / paraffin stove in the 1940s

Oil heaters actually came in a wide range of shapes and sizes.

A personal experience of the emissions from paraffin heaters

In our bathroom we had a paraffin heater which we would light for about 10 minutes before starting to run a bath, and it would stay lit - unvented - until the last bath of the household was finished. How we never succumbed to carbon-monoxide poisoning is a complete mystery to me in retrospect, but we didn't know it was dangerous back then!

David Harriman

Oil heaters and smell

As a child my parents took me to visit a very old man who had no modern conveniences. All his lights were gas lamps and his heating was with oil heaters. The smell from the oil heaters permeated all over the house, even in summer.

Neil Cryer

Poisonous fumes from paraffin heaters?

Later paraffin heaters are designed to emit no poisonous CO (carbon monoxide) but only CO2 (carbon dioxide) and water vapour. Their only hazard if anti-tilt features are present is that in a closed and non-ventilated room the oxygen in the air, needed for breathing, will be used up by combustion of the paraffin. This would normally cause sleepers to wake up, but sedated or intoxicated adults and infants, could then be at risk of smothering.

Douglas Adam

Oil heaters in greenhouses

Oil heater were the obvious choice to keep the frost out of greenhouses in the depths of winter. I am told that the plants didn't mind.

Later models of oil heaters

In the 1950s we had a paraffin heater in the shape of a radiator. At the time, I thought it absolutely luxurious as the homes of ordinary people did not have central heating and our paraffin heater looked as if it was part of one.

oil heater shaped like a radiator

Oil heater shaped like a radiator

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

Text and images are copyright

Photograph by the webmaster in Fagans Museum of Welsh Life.

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