In the Kitchen With Laura Kerosene Lamps

Beyond Candles

Although making candles is one of the major pioneer crafts that is demonstrated at museums or pioneer events today, as soon as they could people moved on to lamps that were fueled with whale oil, coal oil, and later with kerosene. People did definitely make candles, but mostly in the earlier years of American history, at lower economic levels, or in very isolated frontier areas without a settlement nearby. Lamps were easier to clean than candles, easier to keep functioning, and allowed a cleaner, sharper light. One of the many products once created by whaling was oil for lamps. The entire country ran on whale, but by the mid-19th century that was quickly shifting as the beginning of petroleum products stepped in to many of these uses – at least those that weren’t directly related to food.

Kerosene is Introduced

Robert Edwin Dietz patented the first practical kerosene lamp in 1859, independent of similar work being done in Poland. According to the Dictionary of Energy, “The Dietz Company went on to manufacture hundreds of lantern models, and became a pioneer in the automotive electric lighting industry.” Kerosene was the first useful product from crude oil and is produced by distilling it. Kerosene was where the money was. Gasoline was known during the same time, but didn’t have an immediately apparent use.

Karl and Jean Carrying Kerosene
Karl and Jean Carrying Kerosene

Laura and Kerosene Lamps

Although there is mention of candles in the “Little House” books, kerosene lamps or lanterns are definitely the rule as the series moves on in time. There is a lot of work to keeping a kerosene lamp operating properly and Laura wrote how glad she was that they could be put away in the cupboard in favor of electric lights.

While I was growing up we used to keep a lamp lit every time there was a storm and while I’m just as glad that our generator means no more blackouts, I still miss having a reason to get out the lamp and light it on a fairly regular basis.


For this month’s In the Kitchen With Laura post we’re learning all about how you work and take care of a kerosene lamp.


These are resources I used for some of the invention details from our library, ask at your local library to ILL it.

“Cracking.” 50 Chemistry Ideas You Really Need to Know, Hayley Birch, Quercus, 2015. Credo Reference,  Accessed 03 Mar 2017.

“Dietz, Robert Edwin 1818-1897,” Dictionary of Energy, edited by Cleveland, Cutler and Christopher Morris, Elsevier Science & Technology, 2014. Credo Reference, Accessed 03 Mar 2017.

Sarah S. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many times at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. She is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic, and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. How can you help? Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, look at her photos, and find her on Facebook , Twitter , Google+LinkedIn , SlideShare, and . Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and former director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.