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Victorian Oil Lamp Artifact Highlight #53

This lamp was donated to our collection in 1992. It is an oil lamp that was made for burning kerosene but could also burn whale oil. It has a frosted glass globe shade with a cut floral pattern and a chimney made of clear glass that was used to reduce the flickering and the smoking of the flame and to increase its brightness. The frosted glass fuel reservoir has brass fittings and a single tube burner with a cotton wick that extends down the bowl.

The stand is made of silverplated brass with a baroque design, modified from a candlestick.

Silverplate is worn off in places. The lamp dates to the late 1850s and was probably made in England.

Before the Civil War and the widespread use of gaslight later in the century, candles and oil lamps were the most popular form of lighting in American households. The oil lamps burned lard, camphene, or whale oil, which was extracted from whale blubber.

Eighteenth-century engraving showing Dutch whalers hunting bowhead whales in the Arctic. Public Domain

Whaling was the fifth-largest industry in the United States, with a fleet of 735 ships in 1846. Thousands of whales were slaughtered for oil that was shipped around the world to be used in lamps, lubricants, candles and even perfumes. Whale oil was very efficient, but it was thick in cold temperatures, smelly and expensive (especially the spermaceti oil, which came from the head of the Sperm whale).

Placer Herald, April 20, 1861

When kerosene was developed in the late 1840s by a Canadian physician and geologist Abraham Gesner, it quickly replaced whale oil and other illuminating fluids. The difference between oil lamps and kerosene lamps was minimal. Oil served the same purpose as kerosene and it was a cleaner burning fuel with less pollutants.

Caption: "Grand Ball Given By The Whales In Honor Of The Discovery Of The Oil Wells In Pennsylvania." Vanity Fair magazine on April 20, 1861. Public Domain

Yet, by the 1860s kerosene was a tenth of the price of whale oil. It was also brighter, had less odor, and gave off less soot.

The Placer Herald, November 1, 1862

The first modern kerosene lamp was invented by a Polish inventor Ignacy Łukasiewicz in 1853. Łukasiewicz built the world’s first oil refinery and discovered that kerosene can be extracted from petroleum. Kerosene lighting led to economic and cultural changes, as it improved worker productivity and allowed businesses, theatres, and museums to extend hours of operation.

The lamp was donated by Jeanne Whitney of Carmichael.