Kerosene Lamps

Little more than nostalgic knick-knacks today, kerosene lamps are the erstwhile companions of our childhood nights, old friends imbued with pleasant memories.

For yesterday’s children, kerosene lamps, or ‘gas lamps’ as they are commonly known, are a nostalgic reminder of nights in the old days. These lamps that lit the way for mothers, nannies or servants rising in the night to look after a child, that illumined homes or provided at least a modicum of light at the bedside of a sleeping person are either used decoratively or wind up in collections today.
Kerosene lamps made their first appearance at the beginning of the 18th century when a Swiss by the name of Argand gave them their original form by passing a flat wick through a fuel tank and adding a chimney on top to protect the flame from wind. The flat wick, which was invented independently by Léger and Alstroemer in 1775, made a major contribution of course to the invention of the lamp. We know that kerosene lamps were used as lighting in homes, shops and coffeehouses in Turkey towards the end of the 1800s. From Kudret Emiroğlu’s book, ‘A History of Everyday Life in Turkey’, we also learn that close to five million kerosene lamp tanks and glass chimneys were produced in the country in the mid-1900s. There was also another type of kerosene lamp that continued to be produced at that time, namely, a lamp that had no chimney but nevertheless burned kerosene. Lamps of this type consisted of a fuel tank and a hole or holes from which the wick extended. Such lamps are more commonly known as ‘kandil’ or oil lamps.
Kerosene lamps consist of five parts. A small fuel tank at the bottom, the burner, to whose collar a small knob is attached for adjusting the kerosene, and a wick that extends through the collar and into a chimney made of delicate glass that sits on top to protect the flame from wind. Indeed, these chimneys are one of the most important details of kerosene lamps. For changing or replacing a lamp’s chimney destroys its authenticity.


I asked the celebrated Turkish novelist Adalet Ağaoğlu about kerosene lamps since she has been collecting them for years both in Turkey and from other countries around the world. Ağaoğlu explained how she got started collecting the lamps: “As a person who lacks a strong proprietary sense, I somehow felt protective of this small, grimy thing without a chimney that had long since fallen out of favor. Ever since that day it was as if I wanted to pay off a debt I felt I owed to its dim yellow light, which never deserted me on my childhood nights and with whose shadows I had in the end forged a friendship. Wherever I saw one, whatever its shape, I felt as if I had stumbled upon an old friend, so I invited it into my home. But every one of them had something wrong with it or was missing some part. All those different chimneys—large, small, cylindrical—had been broken. Such fragile little things...” I asked Ağaoğlu if there was any connection between putting together a collection of kerosene lamps and putting together a story with words and memories: “In my case I think that the connection between writing and being interested in kerosene lamps has to do with the ‘playing with time’ that one does in a novel. In fact, that’s the reason why I switched from being a playwright to being a novelist. We might speak of a connection, a similarity, between playing with time—illuminating the time that is invisible in the novel, the time that does not belong to that particular moment—and the way that kerosene lamps illuminate what we otherwise would not be able to see. Just as kerosene lamps light up the darkness, albeit only a small patch of it, so does a novel make it possible to play with time, through flashbacks for example.
As for the connection with inventing a plot, one of the main problems with collecting kerosene lamps was that most of the time their chimneys were broken. So I had to go to a lot of places to find chimneys to fit the burners. I even consulted books about lamps in order to find chimneys authentic to the period. But in the end I couldn’t find a single book that gave a history of kerosene lamps. So, at that point I started paying attention to the diameters of the collars of the burners and did some experimenting myself. I tried to imagine how certain tanks and chimneys would look together. It was then that I tapped in to my writerly side and did a little ‘inventing.’”


The job of kerosene lamps to ‘lluminate’ or ‘light the way’ has changed considerably today when they have degenerated into mere mass-produced items of consumption. And with this change in values, Adalet Ağaoğlu too has given up collecting these unique lamps, each one different from all the others, that once witnessed so many of life’s moments in so many different homes. But it is still possible to come across kerosene lamps in a number of places. In Dolmabahçe Palace, for example, which has many priceless ones of unmatched beauty that were used more for decoration. Another context in which we encounter kerosene lamps is in the art of illusion. Kalanag (his real name was Helmut Ewald Schreiber), one of the most famous magicians of the 20th century, used kerosene lamps in his performances, in one particular trick, for example, that he performed over and over again. Kalanag would light the wick of a kerosene lamp that he brought on stage with him and then light a cigarette from the wick. He would then place the lamp on a glass tripod and cover it with a fine silk cover with a hole in the center in such a way that the lamp’s chimney was exposed. Approaching close to his audience with the lamp in his hand, Kalanag would rapidly whisk off the cover. As he did so, the lamp would disappear. At the end of his performance, he would fling the cover at the spectators. This trick, which is reminiscent of the innocent illusions created by the shadows of kerosene lamps reflected on walls, brings back warm memories of the good old days when we still believed in magic and fairy tales. So what is it that makes kerosene lamps so special and unforgettable? Is it simply that they illuminate the invisible, or do they inevitably add a dash of wistfulness to our memories? The tank is filled with a sufficient amount of kerosene, the wick is turned up with the help of the knob and then lit. The chimney, which has been warmed in the hands in advance so it won’t shatter with the sudden heat of the flame, is placed over the burner, and a night by lamplight begins. It continues with the play of shadows created on the walls by its flickering glow, which illuminated not only the dinner table and the stairwell in old wood frame houses, but also the face of the storyteller... Today that flickering light of the kerosene lamp conjures up associations with childhood in the hidden recesses of our brain. And the fragility of its chimney, sadness... Just like the sadness evoked by lost memories...