Mason County News
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Mostly Memories
Wednesday, July 15, 2009 • Posted July 15, 2009

The Coal Oil Lamp Days

Kids of today and many older people who did not live through the kerosene and/or coal oil lamp days have no idea what the days “before electricity” were like. To give them a very small insight into those days I will improvise a scenario that could have happened in nearly every home depending upon the light from kerosene lamps.

Scene: It is after dark on this school night - supper has been eaten, the dishes have been washed and now the school children of the family are ready for action.


“Alright you kids, it’s time to get your lessons”and with that command (which was issued five nights of every school week) Mama placed two kerosene lamps on the dining room table and said “Get at it.”

Around the table would be gathered my older brother, my sister and myself. Older brother got a lamp of his own while Sis and I had to share the other. It was this sharing, with each of us trying to pull the lamp a little closer so that we could see our schoolwork better that created the bickering so characteristic in brother and sister relationships.

“Mama, Bill is hogging the lamp - make him move it closer to me so that I can see” was a common complaint. Or, “Mama, sister has the wick turned up so high it’s sooting up the chimney. It’s so dark over here I can’t see what I’m doing.”

“Sister” said Mama, “clean the soot out of that lamp chimney so that Bill can see, and don’t forget to wait until the chimney has cooled off before you put it in water. I don’t want you breaking anymore lamp chimneys by putting them in water before they have cooled”....Fade out.


I do not know just when electricity first came to Brady but I think that I was either 9 or 10 before we first had it in our home and this would have been in 1920 or 21. Therefore I am assuming that people born after those dates never had an occasion to use a kerosene lamp except for those living in the country. If that is true let me be the first to tell you that you have not missed a thing.

I was talking with the friend I call “Ole What’shisname” about those kerosene lamp days and while he is much younger I found that his memories of those olden days are just as vivid an my own.

“We didn’t have electricity until we moved into Brady and I believe it was not until 1939 that the REA completed providing electricity to most all of the farms and ranches. With electricity came one of the world’s greatest inventions, the refrigerator, which replaced the old ice box and preserved much of the food we normally threw away. No longer did we leave the left over food from the noon meal covered with a cloth to keep off the flies - now we could put it in the refrigerator and keep it for several days if necessary.”

We each recalled the use of the coal oil lamp in the home and the lantern which was for outside use, primarily in the barn. While the use of the coal oil lamp provided the night-light for homes it was the wood stoves that supplied the heat. Perhaps the most economical of the stoves used in those days was the sheet iron stove which, although very small, could put out enough heat to warm the average size room. The pot bellied stove was much taller and was generally made of cast iron and it would accommodate wood, coal or anything else that would burn. However, the primary heat of the home was provided by the wood burning cook stove in the kitchen.

It was while discussing these kitchen stoves that I learned “Ol’ What’shisname’s” family was perhaps more affluent than mine. For, while our kitchen wood stove was just plain vanilla - consisting of an oven with a top which accommodated cooking vessels - in addition to the oven his had a water holding compartment or reservoir which heated their water, a warming closet up above the stove top and another underneath the oven.

In large families the oven itself was seldom ever idle for something had to be cooking almost all of the time. When the oven was idle those woodstoves with warming closets could keep leftovers from breakfast warm and available for the hungry until time for dinner.

If our kitchen stove had those additional features I do not recall them. Therefore “Ol’ Whatshisname” was not as poor as he would have us believe.

While discussing olden day kitchens we naturally had to bring up those houses built with the kitchen separated from the rest of the house by an open, roof covered, passage way known as a “dog run.” Neither of us knew just “how cum” such a nomenclature was designed for this passageway but we assumed that the primary reason for the separation was the likelihood of a fire in the kitchen.

Continuing we each recalled the days when fruit jar lids filled with water were placed under each leg of the dining room table. This in effect created a moat around each leg and prevented the sugar ants (we had another name for them) from getting on the table and flavoring the leftover foods with their distinctive aroma.

Prominent among the other household pests in those days was the fly. While the normal control of this pesky insect was the fly swatter many folk used fly paper - that sticky stuff that entrapped the fly in a death grip. Some of this fly paper came in sheets which were placed on tables throughout the house while another configuration came in rolls approximately 1 and 1/2 inches wide which could be hung in prominent fly locations.

Since I have talked about the kerosene lamp, the house fly, the fly paper, the fly swatter and the piss ant SO I might as well bring in the old hand fan. These old-time products, which were generally given away as advertisements by some local firm, were life savers before electric fans and refrigerated air came on to the scene. Public gatherings, particularly our churches, were filled with women fanning themselves, their small children and oft times their husbands. On many occasions I have seen Mama fan us until her arm gave out and then Papa would take over. I’ll tell you folks, the churches were hot as old billy hell in those days.


Anyone knowing why that open passageway between those old time kitchens and the rest of the house was called a “dog run” or a “dog trot” please advise.

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