A Light in Dark Places

As winter begins to set in, the days grow shorter and it is often dark by 5 p.m. In today’s world, light is as easy as the flick of a switch. But it wasn’t always that way.

Until the relatively recent invention of the lightbulb, any light that could be found after the sun set came from fire. Early light sources included bonfires, torches, candles and oil lamps, such as the one discovered in pieces at Fairfax County’s Ash Grove Historic Site.

Oil lamps have been around for thousands of years. An early version of the oil lamp was first used during the Upper Paleolithic period (about 50,000 to 12,000 years ago). These early oil lamps looked nothing like those that existed during the Victorian Era or the kinds you can buy today. They were made of stone or shell that had depressions. Animal fat was put in the depression along with a fibrous flammable material that was burned to produce light (Milwaukee Public Museum 2019).

The Greeks and Romans created oil lamps that had a holder for a wick, as well as lamps with an enclosed top that helped them avoid oil spills and made them easier to carry. Glass oil lamps were invented by the 4th century AD, but few examples of these remain, due to their fragile nature. Metal oil lamps became popular in Roman times and are still being made today (Milwaukee Public Museum 2019).

Around 1780, a Swiss chemist by the name of Ami Argand made an improvement to the traditional oil lamp. The Argand lamp consisted of an enclosed reservoir for the oil, a cylindrical wick, a turning mechanism to lower and raise the wick, and a cylindrical glass globe. The globe encompassed the exterior of the lamp, around and above the flame, to enhance air flow to the flame and protect the user from an open flame. This style of oil lamp was used until the mid-1800s, when drilling for petroleum began” (Bellis 2019).

With the success of the petroleum oil industry, kerosene, a product derived from petroleum, became the primary fuel for lamps. In the process, new lamps were designed and are the kinds we still use. Prior to kerosene, oil lamps were fueled by a variety of oils, including olive oil, beeswax, sesame oil, and animal fats, mainly whale fat, which led to a decline in whale populations (Bellis 2019). Kerosene lamps, which were once known as coal-oil lamps, are very similar in style to the Argand lamp. They generally feature either a metal or glass reservoir with a tubular or flat wick that can be lowered or raised by a spurred wheel. The exterior is encased by a glass chimney to control air flow, as well as protect the user (Sandwell).

Two pieces of oil lamps were discovered at Fairfax County’s Ash Grove Historic Site. Ash Grove is one of the oldest homes in Fairfax County, built by Bryan Fairfax around 1790, and oil or kerosene lamps would have been the primary indoor light source until electricity became widely used.

The pieces found at Ash Grove are from a Victorian era Manhattan Student Oil Lamp. These Manhattan Student Lamps were manufactured by the Manhattan Brass Company, which operated from 1865 to 1926. The Manhattan Student Lamp was patented in 1877 and manufactured until the company’s closure (The Lampworks).

This section would have held the cylindrical wick in place inside the lamp (Miles Stair’s Wick Shoppe).

This piece of oil lamp is the metal base that would have served as the oil reservoir with a central tube for the wick. A spurred turn dial is visible on the side which would have been used to adjust the height of the wick.

Finds such as these help county archaeologists determine when a home was occupied and provide a glimpse into the lives of the people who lived there.

Lighting has come a long way since the discovery of fire. It is difficult to imagine a time without a light source being readily available. This winter, I will certainly be thankful for modern electricity and the ability to have light at the flip of a switch.

Author Melissa Lee is a Fairfax County Park Authority archaeological collections assistant.

References:

Milwaukee Public Museum. 2019. Description and History of Oil Lamps: Roman Oil Lamps Defined. Milwaukee Public Museum. Electronic. https://www.mpm.edu/research-collections/anthropology/anthropology-collections-research/mediterranean-oil-lamps/description-and-history-oil-lamps Accessed October 6, 2020.

Bellis, Mary. 2019. The History of Lighting and Lamps. Thought Co. Updated July 2, 2019. Electronic. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-lighting-and-lamps-1992089 Accessed October 6, 2020.

Sandwell, R. W.  “The Coal-Oil Lamp.” Agricultural History 92, no. 2 (2018): 190. doi:10.3098/ah.2018.092.2.190.

The Lampworks. 2011. A Brief Historical Profile of The Manhattan Brass Company. The Lampworks. Electronic. http://www.thelampworks.com/lw_companies_manhattan.htm Accessed November 6, 2020.

Miles Stair’s Wick Shoppe. Victorian Era Student Lamps. Miles Stair’s Wick Shoppe. Electronic. http://www.milesstair.com/Victorian_Era_Student_Lamps.html Accessed November 6, 2020.