Whale Oil Lantern

The story of a Whale Oil lantern

by Eleanor Chiquoine

Whale Oil Lamp.jpg

      During the autumn and winter months as the days get shorter, for many, the disappearing light triggers a sense of melancholy.     

     Think for a moment about 19th century Sauk County!  When our European ancestors came here to make new lives, they undertook a challenge.  Building homes, caring for animals, and doing house work were hard tasks.  Winter’s short days meant less daylight to accomplish all the work.

      Today, a flip of one’s wrist turns on safe, inexpensive electric lighting for most of us.  This was not always so.  In the not so distant past, reading after dark or finding one’s way at night were difficult tasks. 

       Depicted is a whale oil lamp owned by early Sauk County pioneer and surveyor William H. Canfield.   Between 1800 and 1860, whale oil lamps like this one were considered “high tech” lighting solutions.   Most of the early pioneers in Sauk County (before the Civil War) used candles to provide light.  Candles weren’t very bright, created a lot of smoke, and the tallow from which most were made had an off-putting smell.  

      Whale oil lamps burned brightly and were smoke-free compared to candles.  Whale oil was made from the rendering of whale blubber.  Quickly, humans hunted some whale species to the brink of extinction.  In today’s dollars, whale oil would cost close to $200 a gallon!  

     The high cost of whale oil, and the poor performance of candles, explains the rapid success of kerosene when it entered the market around the time of the Civil War.   Oil was discovered in Pennsylvania in the late 1850’s.  Within a short time, kerosene lanterns became popular, and dominated the market as a lighting source well into the 20th century.  Whale oil lanterns like this one ended up in museums.  

     Sauk County has seen a variety of solutions to interior lighting, from firelight, to candles, to whale oil lanterns, to gas lights, and finally to electric lights.   In rural areas,  kerosene lanterns were used until President Franklin Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification project brought electric lines out to the farms.

       During these short winter days, we should all appreciate our easy sources for interior lighting.  Knowing the history of interior lighting in Sauk County teaches this:  things change.  Let’s encourage current and future scientists to work on sources of accessible, safe, and environmentally gentle lighting for the 21st century.  Some day the electric lighting we know and love so well today, may be the subject of a historical article in an issue of the Sauk County Historical Society newsletter!