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Flicker and Flame: Whale Oil and Kerosene Lamps

Flicker and Flame: Whale Oil and Kerosene Lamps
February 8 to October 29, 2021

Whale oil and Kerosene lamps provided the world what was long sought: a way to bring light into the home that would be a safer alternative to candlelight. Lamps were being used as early as the 9th century in Persia, but these lamps were open oil bowls and unsafe. A new type of lamp was needed to light a family home, be used in a factory, and anywhere additional illumination was needed.

The earliest lamps used vegetable oils, tallow, or animal fat as the fuel, but all of these sources had an odor that was not the most pleasant. In the early 1700s and 1800s, whale oil was the finest fuel source because it was mostly odorless and would have a unique coloring that could range from clear to a golden color. Whale oil lamps were usually created with pressed glass, which was a faster glass making process that utilized multi-part glass molds.

By the Civil War Era, alternative sustainable fuels needed to be explored and manufactured on a larger scale. Kerosene fuel would be the eventual replacement of whale oil. In 1846 Abraham Gesner found that distilling coal produced a transparent liquid with a brighter flame in a more traditional oil lamp. Gesner named the liquid kerosene after the Greek work keroselaion. Kerosene was, again, clean and odorless, but it involved a difficult distilling process from coal. Within the decade, discovery that kerosene could be extracted from petroleum made the production a simpler and more cost-effective one. These clean-burning lamps with more affordable fuel led to longer hours spent by lamp-light at home, in businesses, on streets, and in theaters with an increased nighttime productivity in factories, brighter lighthouse illumination, and long-lasting lanterns for ships and trains. The revolution in fuels also brought about changes in lamp design to better function with kerosene and to meet new needs, uses, and demands. New lamp designs were created to now include colored glass and the creation of spills and match holders to accompany the lamps.

Kerosene lamps were utilized throughout the 19th century as gas lighting was reserved for the wealthy, and electric lighting was just catching on in rural areas by the very late 1800s. Even after electrification, many families retained their glass Kerosene lamps for emergency uses. With the advent of electrification, many families’ traditional oil lamps were converted to this form of power to maintain the historic beauty and design of oil lamps within the home. 

The exhibition Flicker and Flame: Whale Oil and Kerosene Lamps highlights over 50 glass and ceramic whale oil and kerosene lamps, spills, and match holders from the permanent collection and Iowa Quester Glass Collection. The exhibition explores the history of whale oil and kerosene lamps, innovations and designs in lamp manufacturing, and reveal the history of illumination at the Farm House Museum.

TOP IMAGE: various oil and kerosene lamps manufactured between 1830 and 1915. 

SECOND IMAGE: Kerosene Lamp, Sheldon Swirl pattern (AKA Buckeye No. 528), 1888 manufactured by Buckeye Glass Co. Pink and white spatter over clear glass font, clear glass base, brass fittings, clear chimney. Gift of the Iowa State Questers.

THIRD IMAGE: Kerosene Lamp, Cartouche with fishnet style, 1900 manufactured by Consolidated Lamp and Glass Company. Pressed milk glass, staining, with brass base and fittings, clear glass chimney. Gift of Fay Gish Hill. 



Exhibition Programs

Find full descriptions of programs on the University Museums Calendar. All programs are free and open to the public. Registration is encouraged but not required. Events listed below will be at the Farm House Museum unless otherwise noted. Programs are subject to change. Check the University Museums Calendar and Facebook page for the latest events information.


The Products and Markets of American Commercial Whaling, 1750-1920
Delve further into the fascinating history behind the objects featured in the exhibition Flicker and Flame: Whale Oil and Kerosene Lamps at the Farm House Museum. Join special guest Michael Dyer, Curator of Maritime History at the New Bedford Whaling Museum (New Bedford, MA) as he explores the rise and fall of whale oil in America from the early advent of Atlantic Ocean sperm whaling toward the global expansion of the industry, and on to the eventual obsolesce of these products. Dyer will discuss the early candle market, the diversity of whale oil products, their uses and applications with a particular emphasis on sperm oil lamps circa 1825-1860, including lighthouses as well as evolving lamp types adapted for other burning fluids as the nation and demand grew.


Outdoor Film Screening of The Current War

Tuesday, August 31, 8:00 pm

Hosted by the University Museums’ interns! Experience the next part of the story of illumination with a screening of the film The Current War (2017). In this exciting movie, three brilliant visionaries set off in a charged battle for the future of electrical lighting in the epic story of the cutthroat competition that literally lit up the modern world. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, and Nicholas Hoult. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

Be sure to arrive early to set up your blanket or lawn chair and get some ice cream. The ISU Creamery will begin selling at 7:00 pm.


Science & Technology Café: Into an Electric World with Dr. Hal Wallace

Thursday, October 21, 1:00 - 2:00 pm on Zoom

Life requires light, and people throughout history invented many ways to illuminate their environments. About 150 years ago, they began using electricity to generate light, fundamentally changing our long relationship with artificial lighting. People chose to adopt electric lighting because of its convenience. That choice, reinforced by choices made since, created a society dependent on electricity. Cheap and plentiful artificial lighting is now in a real sense invisible, typically noticed only when it fails. Using materials from the Smithsonian collections, this presentation takes a walk through history, discussing cultural, economic, and social consequences of electric lighting and electrification.

Dr. Hal Wallace is Curator of Electricity Collections at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.


Visit the Farm House Museum

Reopens Monday, August 23!

Hours: Monday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. (closed weekends, holidays and university breaks)

Address: 601 Farm House Lane, Ames, Iowa 50011
Admission: The cost is free, however there is a suggested donation of $8
Parking: Available at the Memorial Union ramp or East Parking Deck for a nominal fee.

The exhibition objects are generous donations of James Jung, Julius Black, Ann and Henry Brunnier, Avis Andre, the Neva Petersen estate, Marian Daniells, the F. Wendell Miller estate, the Robert Wright estate, the Demaris Pease estate, Eleanor McKee, the Bertha and Edward Waldee estate, the Iowa Questers and others.

The exhibition is co-curated by Farm House Museum interns Madisyn Rostro, junior in History at Iowa State, and Kylea Mosley, ('21 History).


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