Antique Oil Burning Lamps

Monday, March 21st, 2011 | Author:
Quoizel Americana Dream Small Hurricane Table Lamp

The Antique Betty Lamp

Lamps in the olden times were not as fancy and classy looking as the ones we find today in many different homes. This is simply because we are lucky to have electricity, and 100 watt bulbs, while the people of the olden days had no such thing. They used lamps made of clay, which burnt oil, small pieces of wood, grease and leftovers of fat, i.e. simply what was on hand. As improvements came about in life, copper and iron became a substitute for clay.

However, even then, the lamps gave off too much of smoke, odor, and leaked oil and grease, so that it fell drop by drop on the objects placed below. This was because of the fact that the wicks in these lamps were of cloth. These lamps absorbed oil more quickly than it would burn, and the extra absorbed would then leak.

The Betty lamp was an invention during the colonial times, which took away many of the problems associated with lightning. It had a wicker holder at its base, allowing the oil which dripped to run back into the bowl, and be consumed again. Further improvements were made when the lamp was covered. This reduced the smoke, and maximized the burning of the oil.

Different forms of the lamp were invented. Some were made of metal; some had oval or round sides. Many had rods attached, which would fetch the wick if it dropped into the oil.

As more and more people became aware of the usefulness of the invention, the American colonials began using the lamp as the primary source of light. Sometimes the Betty lamp was hung from a lamp stand that was on a counter or an elevated iron stand that rested on the floor. Another technique of elevating the Betty lamp was placing it on a turned wood or tin pedestal that sat on the table. The lamp then elucidated the work surface or reading material of the person sitting there.

The word Betty was originated from the word besser which means better. The lamp was selected for the Logo of the American Home Economics Association, because it symbolized light. In the olden days, when the source of lightning was improper, the Betty lamp gave homes the much needed lightning. Therefore, it was chosen as the appropriate symbol for the Association. Even after the Associations name was changed to American Association of Family and Consumer Services, the logo was continued to be used.

The Betty lamp was accepted as the symbol of learning. It symbolizes the following:

The need of exact knowledge
The blessing of fellowship
The value of service
The appreciation of beauty
The spirit of joy
The power of strength
The satisfaction of achievement
The bond of cooperation

Since then, the Betty lamp has become a collectors item, and the original lamps which were used in the homes have been put into museums, and restored. Betty lamps are being made today but now most people burn olive oil, vegetable oil, or kerosene in them. They are popular with living history buffs. Many people who want to give their homes a colonial touch buy the imitation lamps from shops which sell lights and lamps.

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Frequently Asked Questions

    How do you make animal oil for burning in an oil lamp?
    I know how to render tallow, and that you can add things (such as stearic acid) to harden it. But how do you get an oil from it? Is there just an additive you can use to keep it in liquid form? I frequently enjoy the ambiance of antique oil lamps, as well as candles, and would like to find a way to make my own oil. If there is a similar process to follow between making the two, naturally I’d want to go that route for the sake of simplicity. And obviously, it doesn’t need to be combustible. In fact, that would be quite unpleasant. I’m aware of the method of just using the fat in the lamp and warming it up every time I want to use it, but I’d rather not use such a cumbersome technique.

    • ANSWER:
      I would imagine that some of the sustainable living, off the grid living, and homesteading types would more readily have an answer to this one. Often we are told that all fats are the same etc… But, those of us who eat meat and fish, knowingly use beauty products, and use fats in cooking know that this is not true. If you have experience rendering fats then you know it is not true too.

      One of the things that people who work with fats, plant or animal, are aware of is that their smoke point is not equal. Of course, smoke point leads to the discussion of the temperature at which a specific fat burns. The burn point of a fat is related to the temperature and conditions at which a specific fat liquifies. In days gone by, many of the animal based fats burned in oil lamps seemed to come from sea creatures such as whales and turtles. In fact they were called things like whale oil and turtle oil, as opposed to fat, indicating that they were in more of a liquid form. The fat from foul is soften less dense, softer, easier to melt, and easier to incorporate/cut-into flours in baking and sauces/gravies too. But, if you’ve worked in baking directly with animal fat or in rendering fat, do remember that many animals contain both denser and less dense fat within the same carcass.

      It seems as if in times past, before the incandescent let alone LED light bulb, some fats were used to make candles and others oils. Among other things, it sounds like you are trying to make fats that are best structured for the making of candles into oil. Towards making and oil for burning, you might even want to look into the origins of pressing plant based oils to see if they can be adapted for your application and use. Plant fats seem to be less dense and a better source for oil than most animal fats.

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