November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
It could be simple and utilitarian, like this turn-of-the-century example, an everyday object made of a clear glass base rising to a bowl, a brass wick holder, and a transparent chimney to channel the flame: the kerosene lamp was, after all, to be found in the most modest houses, but it could also come in all sizes and shapes. Some lamps were adorned with bosses, scrolls, and flowers; they could be made of metal or porcelain, as well as glass; and they were priced accordingly, to fit all budgets. Best of all, they were wonderfully convenient. Unlike candles, kerosene lamps did not blow out at the slightest breeze; they gave far more light, far more cheaply; and in no time at all they provided just the kind of symbolism the mid-nineteenth century loved.
The evenings spent around an “oil lamp” were as much a part of American life as watching television has since become: the ladies bending over their knitting, their embroidery, or during the Civil War, their bandage making, the man of the family reading aloud from a great work of literature— A Tale of Two Cities perhaps, or The Last Days of Pompeii. The image can be found, time and again, in magazines and illustrated books.
The very arrival of the lamps into the drawing room was part of the well-ordered procession of afternoon into night. Kept during the day in kitchen or pantry, their clear glass chimneys carefully washed to eliminate any soot left by an improperly trimmed wick, their reappearance signaled the beginning of the evening. Indeed, they soon came to be seen as the symbol of life itself. His lamp is low, people would say of a man well past his prime; and when he died, his lamp had run out of oil.
Naturally, like all household goods, lamps were also a status symbol. When they had a marble, column-shaped base and gilt bronze ornament, or a fine porcelain bowl and the richest fluted silk shade, they were expensive and to be found in the grandest houses.
Most important of all, though, oil lamps meant progress—greater convenience for all, large fortunes for a few, and the development of a new kind of consumer art. It was in the mid-nineteenth century that, for the first time, there was a widespread and successful attempt at making the middle class feel it could live like the rich: massive, mass-produced furniture might not be as finely detailed as if each piece had been carved by a cabinetmaker, but it served as a convincing enough substitute; moderately priced cloth imitated the richest silks; ready-made clothes followed the latest fashions, so one could no longer tell a woman’s—or a man’s—station at a glance. At the same time, stamped glass, looking almost like crystal, provided even modest households with the ornamental everyday objects—pitchers, butter dishes, compotes—once reserved for the well-to-do. And, of course, kerosene lamps lent themselves perfectly to this kind of progress.
In a society bent on comfort, where every man might become a millionaire and birth meant very little, kerosene lamps made of stamped glass represented not just convenience but affordable luxury, art for the people. And just as some of the new captains of industry made fortunes on a hitherto unimaginable scale, all those who expected to live better than the generation before sought to have interiors in which the useful was made ornamental. Glass was cheap but looked expensive, and so, more perhaps than any other domestic implement, the oil lamp satisfied the longing for affordable luxury and the aspiration toward a vaguely defined artistic fulfillment that came to characterize the growing middle class.
As a result there were fortunes to be made in the manufacture of the lamps themselves but, on a far grander scale, in filling them. So it was that the black, sticky liquid that was oozing from the ground in central Pennsylvania came to the notice of a few entrepreneurs. The great oil boom had begun.
Because, very rapidly, there was a vast demand for oil, an industry sprang up in a disorganized, nearly anarchic fashion. Owners of small plots of land fought their neighbors for more, transports were attacked, price competition raged, and, of course, a number of clever entrepreneurs saw their opportunity. Soon mid-size corporations began to purchase larger tracts of land and set up their own distribution companies; but they found themselves outmaneuvered by an even cleverer newcomer. It was in the oil fields of Pennsylvania that the country’s most famous millionaire, John D. Rockefeller, showed what could be done when it came to outwitting, underselling, and terrifying the competition.
It is an archetypically American story: behind that soothing flow and the reassuring images that lulled consumers, great economic forces were at work and vast fortunes were made. Around the comfortingly Victorian image of the kerosene lamp, in fact, much of modern America was born.