Oil lamps have been used for centuries in various circumstances. They have often held a cultural or ritual significance. However, they were also practical instruments of lighting an area before the widespread adoption of gas-lit, and eventually electrically-lit, homes. Their popularity was not a coincidence when other means of maintaining a light in the dark were considered. So, oil lamps offered a much better experience. While wood lighting sources were also used, they lacked the mobility and clean burn of a typical oil lamp. It is also important to note that oil lamps gained a lot of popularity for their ability to illuminate rooms well. So, with a wide range, their flames provided ample light for most homes.
Today, oil lamps still play a role in many homes across the world. In remote areas that lack electricity, oil lamps are used for their excellent lighting. Some people also maintain oil lamps because of their dependability. In case of an emergency, you can be sure your oil lamp will work once you have access to an oil source. However, electricity may not be as consistent.
Residents of places prone to electricity outages may keep oil lamps on hand to provide light. However, it is also interesting to note that many also keep oil lamps because of their beauty and aesthetic lighting.
Those who enjoy backyard gatherings and bonfires may use oil lamps for the gentle flickering light they offer. The oil lamp itself may also add to its beauty as they are often an elegant glass vase-like top resting on a beautiful dark or bronze metal base. They may make excellent additions to your backyard or home decor.
Structure of an Oil Lamp
Most oil lamps contain, as mentioned, a metal base and a glass top, known as a chimney. The glass chimney surrounds the flame. It ensures that it does not touch anything, as it can injure you or cause a fire. The metal base stores the liquid used to feed the flame. Although this is known as an “oil” lamp, this may not always be oil.
Another important part of the oil lamp is its wick, which is held by a rotating clip. One end of the clip is in the base, while the other is in the glass top. If you turn a knob up, more of the wick comes out of the burner. So, the flame is larger and brighter. While if you turn it down, more of the wick is concealed by the burner, making the flame smaller and dimmer.
Types of Oil Lamps
Although there are many different structures of oil lamps, they are all essentially the same and function in much the same way. However, most oil lamps fall into three categories, separated primarily by the burner liquid used in the lamp. These are usually paraffin lamps, kerosene lamps, and animal fat lamps.
One of the oldest forms of oil lamps, paraffin oil lamps, use a specific chain of hydrocarbons made from petroleum. In terms of oils, paraffin is usually considered a more processed form of kerosene. This is why it is thought to burn cleaner than kerosene. It may contain impurities that leave behind a residue in the lamp base and through soot on nearby walls and surfaces. This is one of the cleanest burning lamp oils currently available. It is also recommended because it leaves behind minimal residue, smoke, or scents.
A previously popular option, kerosene lamps were widely used because of their efficiency. Although they left behind a notable residue and soot, the brightness and longevity of kerosene lamps made them a great option. However, a major downside to kerosene lamps was their scent.
They burnt with a very strong chemical order, which could cause users to become dizzy or nauseous, even inciting headaches. This is why they were mostly used outdoors, where better ventilation was possible. If you plan on using this type of lamp, only use it in a well-ventilated area. Then, always monitor how it is affecting both you and those around you. Additionally, it is best to minimize your usage of kerosene lamps to times when it is unavoidable or highly manageable.
Animal Fat Lamps
The oldest form of lamps we will discuss is animal fat lamps. Of course, these lamps used oils made from a wide variety of animal fats, most commonly whale fats. However, upon the decimation of the whale population, many switched over to using the fat of other animals, such as cows or deer. Today, it is unlikely you will be able to access animal fats properly processed for oil lamps.
However, if you likely would not even want to. This oil burned poorly, leaving behind residue and an unpleasant scent. Animal fats were primarily used because of their affordability, but many soon opted for ethanol-based alternatives. This form of lamp would likely only be used by those who want to preserve its tradition for historical and cultural purposes.
Other Oil Sources
Although the three oils mentioned here were the primary sources of lamp oil, many other products have been used to fuel lamps. It is the beginning of lamps themselves. This includes distilled coal oil, fish oil, vegetable oil, and ethanol products. Most of these oils were eventually phased out of widespread use because of their many downsides.
These are lack in availability, expense, danger to use, and of course, the poor scents they produced. The smell of some of these oils made them unfeasible to use in enclosed environments away from circulation. Thus, arguably light was even more necessary. Many of these oils also burned quite poorly, meaning that many people were forced to clean soot and residue throughout the year.
Although paraffin oil remains a solid choice for those considering using lamp oils, the other oils mentioned here should be avoided whenever possible as they are difficult and cumbersome to use appropriately, unless in an emergency where more comfortable alternatives are not immediately available. Otherwise, most oil lamps have gone out of fashion as they are no longer functional, but their beauty and historical significance will be sure to live on for years to come.