Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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Power outages remind us of pioneer ‘lighting’ in the Old West


In recent weeks, literally MILLIONS of folks throughout the Great Plains, Midwest, and Eastern states have spent a lot of nights in the dark (and cold, in many cases) because of storms that caused massive power outages.

Not many miles from where I live, a couple of hundred thousand folks in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas (mostly northern Arkansas) lost power from ice storms — a number of them being left in the dark and cold for over two weeks. (We were hit like that in our city in January 2007, so I truly sympathize for those who find themselves in such a fix.)

Time to break out the kerosene lamp or coal oil lamps, and be prepared for the winter, eh?

If you’ve lived through the aftermath of one of these nasty ice storms, you appreciate that the most pressing problem is lack of heat, then in many rural cases lack of water, and finally, no lights. But the thing that hurts the most, over time, is the lack of lights — evenings huddled under the blankets, even with a fire to stay warm, get mighty long without lights.

My Grandma Phillips, with whom I lived for three years as a kid, had a couple of old kerosene lamps. I don’t recall the particulars of what type of lamps they were. I don’t really remember what they looked like, now, because I was very young and that was very long ago. But I remember they were both a source of welcome heat and light when the power went out. (That was in southeastern Nebraska, where we had our share of storm outages back in the 1950s.)

I see in Foster-Harris’ book, “The Look of the Old West,” a couple of pages describing common styles of kerosene lamps used in the Old West. As best I can remember, Grandma’s lamp was a pretty simple table lamp, probably a lot like the drawing of the flat-wick lamp drawing in the book. But that was long enough ago that I don’t recall.

I found it interesting in the book’s discussion about kerosene lamps that they were pretty good technology in their day — and even back then there was some concern about available energy resources. Oh, of course they weren’t worried about rising “gas prices” or dwindling petroleum supplies — they wouldn’t have understood ANYTHING about our modern-day energy crises. What they did understand, though, was that kerosene or coal oil (as many called it back then) was a lot cheaper and more readily available than the earlier oil used to fuel lamps throughout the nation: whale oil.