Oil lamps for lighting in old homes
Recollections of oil lamps in use
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. The only lighting was by candles 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.
Oil lamps had what was known as a 'globe' which was a glass shade which was not necessarily spherical. In the first picture, the globe is the pink 'shell'. In the following picture one is cylindrical and the other is reminiscent of a brandy glass. Irrespective of the shape, there was always an outlet at the top to serve as a chimney.
The globe served several purposes. It contained the flame, making the lamp safer than an open flame; it held 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.
Globes were removed for lighting the lamp and afterwards for washing. The washing was essential because the flame was sooty.
The oil was paraffin 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.
Wicks for oil lamps were more bulky than the wicks of candles, and were bought from quite long rolls.
There were several sorts of wick, 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.
Inside an oil lamp, wicks were almost entirely submerged in the oil. Just a couple of millimetres or so would be held above the surface.
How oil lamps worked
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 yellowish light.
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.
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.