The Dirty Work of Illumination

We take lighting for granted.

The sun goes down; we flip a switch. Instant illumination. Sure, sometimes the power goes off and we have to “rough it.” Candles or hurricane lamps for a few hours, a couple of days, sometimes longer if you live on the Gulf Coast and it’s hurricane season (there’s a reason they’re called hurricane lamps).

And while urban America was almost completely electrified (eek! that sounds painful) by 1929, it would be well into the mid-30s, and even the early 40s, before electric power found its way to the farms.

So poor Rose

has the dirty task of kerosene lighting to contend with.

Harold had never seen a volcano, but he imagined this is what it would look like if one were to erupt. Rose had soot over every inch of visable skin. “Who’s winning? You? Or the lamp?” In response, Rose gave him that look he’d learned all women had mastered, the one that said death was imminent if any more words were spoken.

To be fair, cleaning the lamps was a nasty job. Just the weekly task of wiping down the chimneys and shades and the accompanying layer of soot that accumulated on every nearby surface was daunting, and usually resulted in the cutest smudges of soot on Rose’s cheek or nose. But, today she had tackled the semi-annual dismantling of all the lamps for a thorough wash inside and out with soda. This included the lanterns from the barn and shed, so every nook and cranny of the kitchen table was now filled with every manner and size of burners, wicks, chimneys, domes, and shades, pristinely sparkling and free of grime. Of course, the same could not be said of Rose, who seemed to have transfered every ounce of dirt from the lamps to her face and clothing.

He sat down next to her, wiping a spatter of black from the corner of her mouth with his handkerchief. “You look like one of them Johnny Rebs my grandpap used to tell me about. He said you could always tell how bad the fighting was by the amount of powder black on the men’s faces.”

“It seems like a war, I agree with that, but be truthful, Harold, does everybody make this big a mess when they clean these things? Or is it just me? I think I need a bath.”

The mess associated with oil lamps was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Kerosene lighting was dangerous, too, according to Susan Strasser, author of Never Done: a History of American Housework, who cites such perils as combustible vapors, glass chimneys breaking from temperature change, and noxious gasses overtaking a room in lower light conditions.

Noxious gasses. Like carbon monoxide.

Rose won’t get electricity until the early 1940s. Until then, let’s hope she masters the art of illumination’s dirty work. And manages not to succumb to any of its other hazards while she’s at it.

Sources and Notes

1] Strasser, Susan. “The Home Fires.” Never Done: A History of American Housework. New York: H. Holt, 2000. 60-61. Print.

2] What They Didn’t Teach You about the Civil War

3] Farming in the 1930s

4] Timeline of lighting technology

2 thoughts on “The Dirty Work of Illumination

  1. I’d be no good with kerosene lamps, likely to burn the place down. I think their health risks are still a problem in many parts of the world.
    Was that why whale oil was such a commodity? Did it burn more cleanly and safely? I’ve read Moby Dick and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and other whale stuff this past month, and I still don’t quite understand why so many whales had/have to be slaughtered for just lighting and perfume and skirt hoops. They just seem like such unimportant commodities, not worth the destruction of whales.
    Funny, not only was the past darker from lack of light, it was darker because the fuels used added soot everywhere. Cigarettes, pipes, kerosene lamps, coal fires, it’s a wonder anyone’s lungs held out!
    On the other hand, I think we should have worldwide “dark” days more often. It would be nice not to have office and store lights on all night, to keep unnecessary lights turned off — and to see the stars more often!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s