Unfortunately, rubbing an oil lamp will never reward you with a Genie, but the history of oil lamps does have its own magic. The earliest oil lamps date back to the ancient Chinese (481–221 BC). These lamps had a refillable reservoir and a fibrous wick, making it possible to have a contained flame. They were made from a variety of materials, including jade, bronze, ceramic, wood, stone and burned all kinds of oils and animal fats. Since then, oil lamps have been a primary source of lighting for centuries. Indeed, oil lamps provided the first controlled light to a dark world.
During the 1700’s and early 1800’s, whale oil was the fuel of choice. It was a clean burning and virtually odorless fuel. Glass whale oil lamps were manufactured by many companies, but among the most sought after are those made of flint glass at the Sandwich Glass Factory, Sandwich, MA. However, the perilous whale hunts led to a serious depletion of the whale population. During the Civil War Era, the need to find alternative sustainable fuels became an imperative.
In less than a decade, it was discovered that kerosene could also be extracted from petroleum making the fuel a sustainable, commercially viable product. Though gas lighting fueled by kerosene lamps was used throughout the 19th century, it remained a luxury reserved for the wealthy. However, in 1846, Abraham Gesner began distilling coal to produce kerosene, a clear liquid that could produce a bright flame for use in traditional oil lamps. Prior to Gesner’s discovery, undistilled coal oil was used that created a smoky flame, making it unsuitable for indoor use, but his distillation process changed all that. As a result, the discovery of kerosene, led to an economic and cultural revolution. The improved lighting led to higher productivity by allowing the creation of factory night shifts and extended the hours of business operations. Restaurants, theatres, museums, and shops benefitted from longer hours.
By the late 1800’s, electric lighting was just beginning to catch on in rural areas. Even after the more wide-spread use of electricity, people retained their glass kerosene lamps for emergencies. It was during this new age that many oil lamps were converted to electricity, while retaining their outward beauty and design. Despite the fact that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879, only half of all homes in the United States had electric power by 1925. It took several more decades for electricity to replace the use of kerosene.
Today, we can appreciate those nostalgic kerosene fueled oil lamps for their beautifully designed bases adorned with glass globes or delicate tubes. We can collect and admire them in their original state, or we can wire them to adapt to our modern electrified lives. Indeed, many unconverted oil lamps are still in use for emergency lighting in power outages.
The decision to alter an antique oil lamp by wiring it for modern use depends on a collector’s preferences, but there are other considerations. Preserving the history, and the monetary value of a lamp should also be taken into account. Most antique oil lamps are quite affordable, ranging in price from $20 - $250, though some of the finer examples sell well into the thousands. So, unless you have uncovered a circa 1900 Tiffany lamp with a Cobweb design shade and mosaic floral base, at your local thrift shop, modernizing remains optional.
If the lamp is being used as a decorative item, and you do not want to be dipping the wick in kerosene or burning chicken fat just to light the pages of your favorite novel, then converting the lamp is your answer. If you are a purist, a collector, then maintaining your finds in their original state is best. Electrifying an antique lamp usually requires drilling holes for the wires and installing sockets. For avid collectors that would be tantamount to painting a mustache on DaVinci’s Mona Lisa (okay, maybe that’s an overstatement).
In the final analysis, if you are not inclined to alter the historic significance of antique oil lamps then set them on the mantle and enjoy their authenticity. If turning a switch to brighten the night is your preference, then follow your inclinations with the understanding that there will be some loss of value.
Finding antique oil lamps for sale is an easy internet search. eBay, Amazon, and Etsy are among the larger websites, but there are also countless auction houses and dealers offering vintage lamps. And, if you are interested in learning more about the subject, there are books and websites that provide manufacturer information and pricing guides. You can also find all the supplies for do-it-yourself wiring projects: https://www.antiquelampsupply.com/history-of-kerosene-oil-lamps