(This picture shows a coal oil lamp with a card inserted behind one “prong” of the wick burner. It will help to explain what mother meant when she told about putting a card at the side of the globe. It cast a shadow on that side of the room, allowing children to sleep better.)
BY Cleda Amy Rodgers, circa 1969 (This article was written by my mother. Oneta)
We aren’t members of the oldest generation who are around yet. But to the two generations who are younger, we say, “What do you really know about the coal-oil lamp? We can remember the times when just about the time of the evening when the sun was going down, Mam would say “Oh my, the lamp doesn’t have coal-oil in it. You kids get your coats on and run to the neighbors to borrow a little coal oil.” We had to hurry because we had to get back before dark, and the neighbor lived a mile away.
We would get to her house out of breath and maybe she would only have what oil was in her lamp but she’d share with us by taking the burner out of her lamp and pouring part of her coal-oil into my little jar. That would make me feel real bad but we had to have a light, so I’d thank her as sweetly as I could, then away my sister and I would run across the pasture to take the oil to mama.
It made us feel real good when she would put the oil into our lamp and then would light it and put it in the middle of the table with us gathered around to eat a good supper. . .
Have you tried to do that lately? We did – and the light shines right into your faces and you think you can’t see at all. My husband and I had some friends to come out to the homestead house for supper by lamp light not so long ago. We’d move the lamp on every corner of the table trying to see better, but to no avail. Then we set it off the table but couldn’t see at all so we gave up and put it back in the middle of the table like our folks used to do in the good ol’ days.
. . . We’d eat our supper and after the dishes were taken from the table, we gathered back around it again, this time with our books, to study our lessons for school the next day. Mam would help us read or give us our spelling words while daddy would help us with arithmetic. What a cozy feeling when we were tucked in bed and daddy would put a card by the light – you won’t understand that if you never seen it done, but that was part of the game. He would take a card – we always had them in those days, cause everybody wrote to their friends and relatives on penny post cards – and put it next to the lamp chimney on the side next to where we were put to bed and he and Mam would pick up their Western magazine and sit near the table on the other side and read, taking turns and reading to each other out loud, so I’d lay awake and listen as long as I possibly could stay awake.
Then off to sleep to awake by lamplight again, when I’d hear my daddy shaking down the ashes in the heater and stirring a fire in the range so Mam could get breakfast for us hungry kids and then off across the pastures we’d run with our lunch pails and books in our hands, to the school house two miles away. We’d almost judge our neighbors in those days by the kind of coal oil lamp they had. If you would wash the chimneys every morning when you washed your dishes and be sure and take a very clean cloth to polish them, then trim the wick carefully and fill the lamps again, you’d be very well rewarded when nite time came.
But if you weren’t careful, sometimes, I’ve seen a chimney with a hole broke in it and a piece of material carefully pasted over that hole with flour paste – sounds unbelievable but it would work. But you couldn’t wash it when that was the case and it seemed like that chimney would last and last in that condition – so you didn’t just have to go to town after another one. When you run out of coal-oil you could put desolate in the lamp instead. I think it must have been a very poor grade of coal-oil, used in machinery, anyway it caused the poor old lamp to smoke something awful and you had to trim the wick down – and it smelled up the house terrible. Not much light in your house at nite when that was the case.
I remember when we got a house with doors between the rooms and I’d take a lamp in us girls’ bedroom, my two sisters would turn their backs to the light and go to sleep but not me, I always managed to have a book so I’d read until Mam would call, “blow that light out this minute.” “Okay, I’ll just finish this page.” Then very carefully I’d put a card by the globe on the side toward the door and turn the wick down as low as I could possibly see it at all, and go on reading until I couldn’t stay awake any longer so very quietly I’d remove the card, blow the light out and turn the wick back up so Mam wouldn’t know next morning when she cleaned up the lamps.