Not Just Beautiful Beacons: Antique Oil Lamps

Watching the western sun pour through the window onto the antiques I keep above the kitchen cupboards, I nearly gasped. Was that fuzz coating the chimneys of my oil lamps? How long had it been since I dusted up there? A closer look revealed my worst fear: It must have been months.

Slowly, methodically, I brought them down (well after the toddlers went to sleep). I always breathe sigh of relief after the chimney is taken off and set aside as if it were live ammo. The thought of breaking that delicate paper-thin chimney is really what everyone worries about, right?

So, I dutifully cleaned all the lamps one by one. One had the old wick and gooey kerosene left on the bottom. I carefully unscrewed the top and cleaned it out. What surprised me was that the bottom glass wasn’t delicate at all. They all were thick and heavy. Not that you wouldn’t break it if it dropped, but still, I thought why couldn’t these lamps be used in everyday decor?

Oil lamps remind us of simpler times, but times when everyday life wasn’t easy. It’s hard to imagine these pieces were so much more than beautiful beacons. They were as important in centuries-old households as fresh milk and warm blankets. They are the perfect example of an antique with function and beauty.

As they are, antique oil lamps make beautiful centerpieces for holiday tables or formal dinners. New wicks and lamp oil burn smoke free and still add the warm glow of yesteryear. A tall lamp surrounded by pine boughs and holly berries laid to encircle the piece is a simple, yet elegant idea for dressing up an evening Christmas dinner table.

Anytime candlelight is in order; why not light an oil lamp or two? Several mini lamps set individually on large pillar candleholders add more elegance than plain tapers. This is especially beautiful if the mini lamps are unique in color and design and arranged down the center of a table.

Mini lamps are the perfect size for accents in a bathroom or guest bedroom as well. Spark up the chimney. Many chimneys have been replaced and new ones are readily available and inexpensive. Why not try decorative glass paints to add some whimsy and modern charm to an old oil lamp? Swirls, leaves, flowers or other patterns could dress up a new clear glass chimney.

While I was taking apart one of the lamps, I was thinking how beautiful just the glass alone was without the chimney or lamp parts. Now I had a whole other piece to decorate with. The top has a standard opening no matter the base size. The one I scrubbed old kerosene from is tall, clear and round with a narrow pedestal that flares out to the bottom. It’s heavy and not tipsy – a perfect piece to serve as a flower vase.

So, I filled it with water and picked a bunch of daffodils to place inside. Since my flower arranging skills are less than great, I was pleased to see that the narrow opening held the stems while the larger round base allowed the bottoms to fan out. It turned out to be a beautiful instant arrangement to adorn the dining room table. After those blooms faded, I thought maybe I could use some cuttings from houseplants to make a quick arrangement. A few beefsteak begonia leaves and trailing ivy stems created a fresh look and now that they’ve rooted, a few new houseplants to share with friends.

My mom’s collection of mini lamps includes clear and colored glass pieces. I found several perfect for individual flower stems like old-fashioned roses and varieties of yarrow.

I bet terrarium lovers would find an old clear oil lamp unique for creating a mini ecosystem to display. But working with the small opening would be as challenging as making a ship inside a bottle.

Some oil lamps remind me of miniature versions of antique fish bowls. I wonder if a beta fish, since they don’t require much water, would find an old lamp a cozy home?

Another simple idea would be to create a mini beach with sand, seashells and dried grass. Add a seashell to close the top opening. The possibilities are endless.

Bring down those rows of antique oil lamps from high above your kitchen cabinets or atop your old hutch. Take a second look at a lamp you see at an auction or antique store. Carefully inspect them to see if they can be used seasonally or find a permanent place among your collections. Oh, and don’t forget to dust.

Alicia Casey is freelance writer, collector and mother from Mount Horeb, Wis.