Oil lamps date back to the Stone Age and early man. These were man’s first source of light once night fell. Oil lamps in the Stone Age were very crude–made from seashells or stones, with animal fat or moss coated with pine pitch as the fuel. In Roman times, these lamps were widely used and made from clay with cloth wicks. Olive oil was used as the fuel in oil lamps by early Greeks and Romans. At nightfall, a gentle call could be heard, ‘It’s lamp lighting time’… oil lamps were then lit, illuminating the night.
Having the ability to light their homes at night with oil lamps was a huge leap forward for early civilisations. By the light of oil lamps, work could be done at night, and there was a much greater feeling of security. Early oil lamps held multiple wicks, as many as four, producing an even brighter light than would be projected from one wick.
The light of oil lamps casts a warm glow, and one can imagine seeing an ancient city at night illuminated by a soft golden glow from thousands of oil lamps. It is easy to forget that early man relied exclusively upon oil lamps, before the advent of lamps lit by natural gas or electricity. The light bulb was not invented until the late 1800’s, so for many centuries, oil lamps were the only source of light.
The progression of Oil Lamps
At the turn of the century, there were many new designs of oil lamps, most with glass chimneys to protect the wick from being blown out. Whale oil was a common fuel source for oil lamps at that time. However, there was an inherent danger with oil lamps, as there is with any light source using a flame—if toppled, the fire would quickly spread. ‘Hurricane lamps’ are part of the family of oil lamps—cloth wicks burn liquid paraffin inside a ‘portable’ oil lamp.
One legend is the great fire that burned down much of Chicago in the late 1800’s was caused by a hurricane lamp falling over in the O’Leary’s dairy barn. Whether or not true, one fact is not refutable: oil lamps should never be left unattended. Today, we no longer require the light from oil lamps, except when there is a power outage. When that occurs, oil lamps are once again necessary and important, as they have been from the dawn of man, when oil lamps were the only light source in the dark.
The use of Oil Lamps Today
Since the advent of electricity, oil lamps have progressively lost functionality and usage among the civilisations of the world. As stated above, the only time that they are really a necessity is when the power goes out from a storm or otherwise. The use of these lamps has shifted almost exclusively to become pieces of decor.
Many people find the old oil lamps particularly attractive as antique pieces and will decorate their houses with these lamps. Other people have been innovative and created entirely new types of lamps – some that float in water, others that have decorative scenes inside them and still others that have multiple uses. Whether camping in the woods or wanting to use these lamps for decoration, oil lamps can and will always be a staple of human society. Without these lamps, we may have never even ventured out of the stone age and into the iron age!