Lighting Up the Past
It’s great to flick a switch and have light flood every corner of the room. I imagine most of us never give that convenience a second thought. But sometimes I remember the days, growing up on the farm, before we had electric lights to brighten up the long evenings.
Back then, we depended on kerosene lamps. Most consisted of a base that held a small tank of fuel and a cotton wick with one end in the kerosene and the other extending out into the glass chimney setting above it. The higher you turned up the wick by adjusting a knob at the side of the lamp, the higher and brighter the flame. Of course, if you turned it too high, you ended up with too much flame and a soot-coated lamp chimney.
Mom had one of these small lamps for each of the two upstairs bedrooms. I suspect hers were the cheapest variety made since they were clear glass without fancy designs.
I wonder how we carried them up from the kitchen to the bedroom - lit - without starting the house on fire. Maybe we were just lucky. I doubt that the light they cast reached into the corners of our bedrooms. They certainly cast spooky shadows as the flame flickered inside the glass chimney.
For the kitchen, Mom had a fancier lamp. Its base was shiny metal, somewhat larger than the ones used in the bedrooms. A cutout design decorated the bottom of the base. I often sat at the kitchen table and looked at my reflection in its curved surface. It acted somewhat like the mirror in a fun house, distorting my image into fantastic shapes. That may sound like a silly way to pass time, but those were the days before we sat watching TV for hours, and sometimes that’s pretty silly, too.
Our prettiest and biggest lamp sat on the dining room table and was used only when we had company. Although it also had a base for fuel, it was made of pressed green glass, much fancier than our bedroom lamps. Instead of a plain, flat wick, it had a circular type of wick called a mantle. It was made of a substance that would incandesce when heated by the flame below. It was very delicate so Mom never allowed us to clean that lamp. Surrounding the tall glass chimney was a shade of white glass with a rim along the bottom of clear glass in a beaded pattern. The shade rested on three thick wires extending out from the center of the lamp.
Every Saturday morning, Mom washed all the lamp chimneys in hot sudsy water. She rinsed them in the warm water well on one end of the cook stove before polishing them. That was one chore she hardly ever asked us to do. I’m sure she preferred doing it herself to spending money to replace lamp chimneys we might accidentally drop and break.
When my parents moved to town, years after electricity had come to the farm, I asked Mom for her beautiful green glass lamp. It now sets on top of my hutch as a silent reminder of happy days gone by. In its own way, it still brings light to my life.