Rural Pennsylvanians Used Primitive Light Fixtures

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In today’s incandescent and fluorescent world of domestic lighting it is difficult for most of us to believe that only a few generations ago homes in many rural areas in Pennsylvania were lighted by quite primitive means. Perhaps it is not too commonly known that what would definitely be called primitive lighting today continued until rather late in Pennsylvania – late that is, in comparison to lighting as it was known in much of New England or other coastal areas in the east. While many New Englanders were lighting their homes with whale and sperm oil lamps, many rural Pennsylvanians were still using pine knots, grease burn­ing lamps, saucers filled with lard or other refuse grease, and of course when available, the tallow candle.

Only recently, while displaying a number of early lighting devices in an elementary school, the seventy-five year old custodian pointed to a fat burning lamp and commented to the effect that he remembered one of those used in his home when he was a young boy. He went on to ex­plain that his family lived six or seven miles from a store and that when they ran out of “coal oil” they had to rely on a fat burning lamp.

W. J. McKnight has some interesting comments regarding domestic lighting in northwestern Pennsylvania during the 1840’s. In his book, A Pioneer Outline History of Northwestern Pennsylvania, he states:

Up to and even at this date (1841) the usual light at night in these crude cabins was the old iron lamp, something like the miner wears in his hat, or else a dish containing refuse grease, with a rag in it. The aroma from this refuse grease was simply horrible.

A quote from S. W. Fletcher’s Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life, 1640-1840, gives us further insight into primitive lighting as it was known in rural Pennsylvania during the early years of the 19th century.

Yellow pines have at some time, prevailed throughout this extensive country … Their knots are almost ex­clusively used in place of candles and when properly fixed in the backs or jams of the fireplaces for burn­ing them, and when properly split and quartered they afford a brilliant light through the room without the least offense from smoke. These knots spring from the heart of the tree and it is not until the rest of the wood has decayed that they come into use. They are found dispersed on the ground in every direction through the forest and are turned up in ploughing.

Or consider the following excerpt from an interview made during the late 1930’s with an old gentleman who had lived as a boy in rural Fulton County in the 1850’s.

Only by dint of rigid saving could the rural family manage to get along. Although Mother Campbell made candles she cautioned the children against using them except when absolutely necessary. Well Mr. Campbell remembers that his mother many times threw pine on the fire in the fireplace to make light to work by at night.

Mother Campbell referred to above would not have been considered extraordinarily frugal in her sparing use of candies. For the most part candles were simply too expensive to be used as the primary lighting device in many rural homes. McKnight wrote about the relatively high status held by candles:

The possession of a set of candle moulds by a family was an evidence of some wealth. These candles were burned in candlesticks made of tin, iron, or brass and each one had a broad flat base, turned up around the rim to catch the grease. Sometimes, when the candle was exposed to a current of air it would gutter away. A pair of snuffers, made of iron or brass, was a neces­sary article in every house, and had to be used fre­quently to cut away the charred or burned wick. Candles sold in the stores at twelve to fifteen cents per pound. One candle was the number employed to read or write by, and two were generally deemed suf­ficient to light a store. One to carry around to do the seeing by, and the other to stand on the desk to do the charging by.

To a limited degree substances other than the tallow from cattle and sheep were used for candle making. Deer, bear, and moose fat were dried out and used. The wax yielded by boiling the tiny bayberries was also used for candle making by the early Swedes in Pennsylvania. These fragrant green candles when sold were worth twice the price of ordinary tallow ones.

In some areas of Pennsylvania the continuance of primitive lighting forms was due to isolation and poverty. How­ever, in that part of Pennsylvania settled heavily by the Pennsylvania Germans another factor enforced the pro­longation of primitive lighting. There was a traditionalism among the Pennsylvania Germans that extended greatly the use of iron and copper lighting devices. On this point Mal­colm Watkins wrote:

In Germany and Switzerland at the time of the first German migrations to America, the prevaling,lighting devices among the common people were either simple hanging lamps with slanting metal troughs to hold the wicks, or merely shallow pans for burning fat or lard. In Pennsylvania the former came to be called “betty” lamps or “judies” or “kays,” or “frog” lamps. The latter, of Alpine origin, either hung from hooks or had elaborate wrought-iron standards, in which case the pans themselves took on a variety of shapes. From these prototypes the “Dutch” metalsmiths in America developed their own characteristic versions. In collections today there are many examples bearing the names of such makers as Peter Derr, Joseph S. Schmitz, J. Eby, Hurxthat & Co., or J. Baker. So solidly entrenched was the custom in Pennsylvania of using these ancient lamp forms that there are numer­ous instances of their employment late in the nine­teenth century.

The little fat lamp, made quite often from iron or tin – sometimes from copper or brass – was a mainstay in domestic lighting in thousands of homes throughout Pennsylvania. One version – the “betty lamp” – contained a wick holder that permitted the excess fat drawn up by the burning wick to run back into the lamp reservoir. Another type – a single pear shaped vessel with a channel in which the wick lay – dripped its excess fat onto the floor or into a “drip catcher” placed beneath it.

During the 1840’s and continuing throughout the 1860’s there was much interest in improving lamps that would burn lard or lard oil. Because of the ready availability of lard in rural Pennsylvania and the relatively high price of whale oil, these lamps became quite widely used.

The picture shows three lard and lard oil burning lamps. The left lamp features a rather large cylinder within which is a piston that can be moved up or down by rotating the iron rod that can be seen protruding from the top. (Key used for turning is missing.) The piston could be removed and the cylinder filled with lard or other heavy grease. When the piston was replaced and made to press on the lard in the cylinder, the lard was forced into the second taller cylinder into close proximity of the burning flame.

The hole seen just above the saucer of the second lamp opened into a tube that extended upward through the fuel reservoir and supplied additional oxygen to the flame. A feature that all lard burning lamps had in common was a long wick holder that extended into the fuel. The purpose of this was to conduct heat from the flame to the fuel, thus making it less viscous.

It was the successful drilling for petroleum in Pennsyl­vania in 1859 that gradually changed domestic lighting for millions of rural families. Kerosene was relatively cheap and soon became readily available. Still, the primitive light­ing known and used by so many earlier generations man­aged to be retained by some Pennsylvanians until the early years of the twentieth century.



Bolles, Albert S. Pennsylvania, Province and State – A History from 1609-1790. Philadelphia: John Wanamaker, 1899.

Fletcher, S.W. Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life, 1640-1840. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1950.

McKnight, W.J. A Pioneer Outline History of Northwestern Penn­sylvania. Philadelphia: J.P. Lippincott Co., 1905.

Snowberger, Ella M. Recollections of By-Gone Days in the Cove. Vol. 6, Morrison Cove Herald, 1938.

Watkins, C. Malcolm. “Artificial Lighting in America,” Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution 4062, pp. 385-407. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1951.


Dr. William R. Smith is Professor of History at Shippensburg State College.