Sunday, March 27, 2011

An Oil Lamp of my Very Own

This is an ancient sorta lamp right here. atrb ranil
I wrote a blog over on Word Wenches about lighting sources in 1800, me talking about the technology that allowed you to find your way about in a gloomy world.  My take on The Enlightenment, as it were.

In the process of this, I came up with some information on how oil lamps work.  I had not given they mysteries of oil lamps a great deal of thought in all the long and busy years of my life, but from time to time I had wondered why the wick doesn't burn up.  All that fire, y'know.

Turns out the wick is merely an agent to 'wick' liquid to the fire.  The flammable liquid gets drawn up near the fire and vaporizes from the heat thereof and the vapor burns.  The flame is located actually a bit above the wick when everything is going well.   The wick gets charred from the proximity of the flame, but it doesn't provide the fuel of the flame, just a convenient perch for it.
Oil lamps were discovered independently all over the world, from Eskimo igloos to the deserts of Arabia, from Mayan hill villages to the plains of central China --
(unless you are of the school of thought that figures our ancestors were too stupid to figure out astronomy and agriculture all on their own and it was handed down by aliens, in which case I would very much like some of them to drop by and do my taxes for me, thank you,) --
all of which is very clever of people since I would not have thought this oil lamp stuff up myself.  

Step Two: Adding yer olive oil
An oil lamp consists of oil, something to hold the oil, which may or may not be covered to help deal with the spillage issue, and a length of some burnable cloth thingum that is the wick.

Being of an inquiring mind, I set out to create an oil lamp.  That's what all those pictures along the side are: me reverse-engineering primitive lamp.

Step One:  I took one of my spoon rests -- this one is from a Polish pottery.  It has traditional decorations, but I kinda doubt the spoonrest part is traditional.  And it had a promising shape.

Step Three:  The shoelace
Cutting that to length
Step Two:  I sacrificed some of my salad oil.  For you home gamers, this was extra virgin salad oil.  (In my house, even the condiments are virtuous.)

Step Three:   Lamp wicks, by 1800, were braided.  Dunnoh why 'zackly but this evidently helps them do their wicking thing.  So I figgered a shoelace would work.  Use cotton, is my advice.  I don't say that something polyesterish won't work, but I can almost guarantee it is not authentic to 1800.

Step Four: Soak the lace for a bit
Pull the wick up
Step Four:  Let your wick soak up some oil,

and then light it.

 The moment of truth

Step Five:  Voila.  You have your ancient oil lamp, not all that dissimilar to the ones that burnt over the desk of Homer or Voltaire, Murasaki Shikibu or Da Vinci.

I was, frankly, amazed that this worked.
And it burns the wick some

It flares up at first
Once it gets going, it burns with a nice steady flame and just about no smoke.  No odor at all.  Very clean and useful.
Then it settles down to a nice steady light


  1. I have oil lamps, (yes, that is supposed to be plural.) but I've never tried to make my own.

    Now I have to try it.

    Thanks for helping me learn how.

  2. That's amazing! I never thought you could make your own lamp with a spoon rest!

  3. I was flabbergasted, actually. I'd expect the whole thing to just catch on fire. Apparently not.

    The wick seems to be the critical ingredient. Might take a couple tries to get one that can wick fast enough.

  4. I'm just impressed as heck that you were able to pull this off without burning your house down. I'm a terrible combination of technologically challenged and intrepid, as in, "I think I can fix that."

    To illustrate, I once took my sons camping out west with a Coleman stove my sister had bought for $5 at a yard sale. (Our first time camping, I decided to take an 11- and 12-year-old on a 6,000-mile trek, which gives you a sense of how bright I am.) When we got to the Black Hills, it became apparent why the stove had been a steal. There was a hole in the pipeline. Now, my neighbor, who is handy, had advised me to take along a roll of duck tape as, he assured me, it can be used to fix almost anything. Feeling all smart that I'd remembered, I proceeded to patch up our stove. Those of you who did not hide novels in your textbooks during science class will not be surprised to learn it is through no fault of mine that the Black Hills didn't burn to the ground that night.

    It's a darn good thing I was not born when the only sources of light were candles and oil lamps. Perhaps one day I'll write a heroine who is more spirited than practical. Obviously, she will not be a spy.

  5. *g*

    So easy even a caveman can do it . . .

    Upon careful inspection, you will see that I did this experiment next to the sink, on a granite counter top. Not apparent in the picture, but nearby, was a metal skillet cover all ready to smother out any uncontrolled fire.

    I was not taking anything for granted here.

    I will admit that Coleman stoves scare me to death. Give me a campfire any day. That, I can manage.

  6. Ooh, this looks exciting! I might finally get up the nerve to try this with my roman lamp. Feel the same way as you do though, so thanks for the tip about the metal skillet.

  7. Carol7:38 PM

    yeah looks like fun and prettty preeety. and how did it look in the dark? i prefer campfires to Coleman stoves anyday too. have to put that Girl Scout training to work, ya know. am going to try this oil thing.

  8. I didn't photograph it in the dark. (right jo . . . duh.) It gave more light than a candle, I'd say.

    The Park Service folks apparently like Coleman stoves because folks do not set the pine litter alight with them. (I like campfires better too.)

  9. I'm impressed. Seriously.

  10. I was taken aback at how successful a clumsy first attempt turned out to be.

    This seems to be robust technology. Who would have thought?

  11. Anonymous12:22 PM

    Okay, this is just darned cool!!! Thanks Jo! I'm off to make a couple of oil lamps.

    Cliff Erasmus

  12. Made me feel powerful and intelligent. I'm easily pleased, I guess.