Monday, March 14, 2011

Twenty-One Days - Day 10: Lights

Edited to add pictures of Deus Ex Machina's olive oil lamp.

Human beings are diurnal, which is to say that we are active during the day and sleep at night. Throughout the history of "civilization", we have been forcing ourselves into a manner of living that is not natural for us - attempting to extend daylight when we should all just go to bed.

In the latter part of the 19th Century the idea of changing the clocks to make better use of daylight hours was proposed, and by the end of WWI, most of the Western world had adopted Daylight Savings Time.

Reading about Daylight Savings Time is fascinating. I found statements like, the longer days nearer the summer solstice in high latitudes offer more room to shift daylight from morning to evening so that early morning daylight is not wasted very interesting ... perhaps a little disturbing, because the article went on to argue that it was better to change the clock than to have people get up earlier during the summer so that morning hours weren't wasted. Very sad that our culture created this kind of mindset, and that we are so out of touch with the rhythms of nature that we need to manipulate "time" in order not to waste daylight.

Of course, light, during the summer, isn't an issue. The sun rises by 6:00 on most mornings and doesn't set until 20:00 or later. It's during the winter, when the sun doesn't peek out until 7:00 or later and decides to call it a day at 16:00. Most of us aren't done for the day, and so we want some sort of light to help us navigate through the darkness.

At the moment, my home is illuminated during the dark hours with electricity. We replaced all of our incandescent bulbs with CFLs, and with a small solar-powered or pedal-powered generator, we could probably keep the electric lights blazing. The problem is that we will, likely, only have a small system, and the question is, what do we want to keep powered? I'm not sure keeping those CFLs burning is my answer - not to mention the fact that at some point, they will stop working, and I'll have to find a way to safely dispose of them, and also the fact that once they stop blazing, there is a possibility that I won't be able to replace them, and then, what?

My answer to "then what?" is to revert back to some older technologies. I have several oil lamps. We have bees so that we have access to beeswax for candle making. In the book Gone with the Wind during the war when everything was scarce at Tara (the plantation home of protagonist, Scarlet O'Hara) they used rags soaked in bacon fat for lights. I, actually, thought that was a pretty clever solution.

But not as clever as my incredibly clever husband ...

Last summer, Deus Ex Machina was experimenting with different lighting options. After testing several vessels, wicks and fuels, he made an olive oil lamp using an old canning jar. First, he found a piece of cotton twine that he unraveled so that it was looser. Then, he poked a hole in a used canning lid and filled the jar with olive oil. He lowered the wick into the oil, and pushed it up through the hole in the lid, and then screwed the lid into place. It worked like a charm.

We discovered a couple of things, though ... in case anyone else wants to try out the experiment.

1. The distance between the wick and the oil needs to be very short. In ours, we filled the jar, and there is only a inch or so of air space between the wick and the oil. The oil can be lower (about halfway down the jar) and the lamp will still work, but our regular kerosene lanterns, where the fire on the wick is as much as three inches from the oil level, don't work as well when fueled with olive oil and tend to sputter and not stay lit very well.

2. As Deus Ex Machina mentions in the posts linked above, olive oil doesn't smoke or smell bad, like kerosene. It is also not combustible. You can drop a match right into the oil, and it won't catch fire.

3. As long as the wick is in the oil, it will continue to "wick" the oil up, and so if the lamp is not used regularly, you'll need to poke some holes in the top of the jar lid so that the oil can go back into the jar. If you don't put holes in the lid, the oil will puddle on the lid, and eventually, spill all over the table ... ask me how I know ;).

As a special treat for today's giveaway, Deus Ex Machina has offered to make a canning jar olive oil lamp for one lucky person. And just as an aside, the oil lamp isn't just for light ;). As usual, leave a comment to be entered into the drawing.


The winner of the book Your Goatsis Kimberly.

The winner of the book Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small Spaces is patricialynn.

Congratulations to you both! Please leave a comment with the address to which you would like your book mailed. Comments are moderated, and I won't post your address. Be sure to leave your full name :).


  1. That oil lamp/portable s'mores stove is so neat!! And I agree - this series is great! Thanks :)

  2. What a great idea! And a good way to reuse the canning lids. It would be a great conversation starter!


  3. Another good post. I have been paying attention to my body the last half year or so, and trying to honour what it is telling me. If I feel like getting up in the morning, and it's only 6 am, I do. If I'm tired at 8:45, I go to sleep. I'm much happier, much healthier, and get more done ;) We do tend to live by the clock, don't we?

  4. Hi there,

    I am so happy to have won the book last week that I am NOT commenting for the purposes of being entered in the drawing (thanks anyway!) but because I'd like to see a picture of the olive oil lamp from the side if possible. I followed the link to the photo with the s'mores, but I still don't fully grasp the finer points of #1 and #3 above. Would you post a drawing or a side view photo so I can picture what you mean by having the wick close to the oil? (Does the jar have to be very full?)

    Thanks in advance and I'll make my own if I can figure it out! :)

  5. Very intrigued by this oil lamp you've come up with. Sounds very cool.

  6. Interesting idea with the olive oil lamp. I'll have to try this out myself.

  7. Like Greta not posting to win
    When hubby was stationed in Sicily we had many power outages - in the evening of course - and needed light. We poured olive oil in a shallow saucer, manipulated a cotton ball to look like a Hershey's kiss, placed it in the oil, let it absorb the oil and lit it. It worked well. Placed on a mirror or putting a mirror behind increased the light.


  8. Wendy, I have been thinking about your post today....about how we are always being manipulated through supposedly new daylight saving time. Arizona does not change times...just one less thing to think about...I am not a big fan of the new light bulbs...I wonder how many of the old light bulbs were just thrown away to make way for the the name of "new better"...When they first came out never once did I read use what you have first...maybe just take one of the light bulbs out of the multi bulb lights we seem to think we need to conserve the wattage...I have fallen in love with the headlamps that back packers / hikers use...puts the light right where you need it...they last a long long time and are energy good...might even be cheaper than olive oil in the long run. Anyway, my whole point for this comment was that I for one will be glad when there are not that many choices or things to "buy" ..we will go back to the old ways of getting up with the chickens and going to bed when it is dark.

  9. See and here I find it annoying that the sun sets so early in the summer and so late in the winter ;-).
    I have to ask, what's the cost effectiveness on the olive oil lamp? I like to have olive oil around, but dang, it's freaking expensive. Even the "not so great" olive oil is pricey. It's one of the first things off the grocery list if need be.
    Have you tried this with other cheaper oils? Or are they more flammable? (I think canola oil would be...I vaguely remember setting the popcorn popper at the movie theater on fire by forgetting to add the seeds to the oil...!)

  10. One point I would like to make about using an olive oil lamp is that it if turns over, the oil will not catch fire. More likely is that it will douse the flame.

    @Kaye - we didn't try any other vegetable oil, but we did try animal fat, and it also did not catch fire when we threw a match in it. I imagine it would work with any oil or fat, in much the same way, and I don't think other vegetable-based oils are combustible. With the oil lamp, you're not heating the oil, and so it will behave very diffrently than it does when you're cooking with it.

  11. I love the lantern. My daughter loves lanterns, but I won't have one in the house because of the fire risk. This would be a perfect substitute. Please enter me in the drawing.

  12. Back in the late '70s, my mom bought this thing called an "Un-Candle." It was: a shallow jar, filled with vegetable oil (yes, it burns well) and a little "boat" carrying a wick that floated on the oil. I talked about candles in my "48 Hours in the Dark" blog post back in January, and I do like the candle holder with the glass chimney we have — you can carry it around without getting hot wax on your hand or the carpet. One of these oil candles would be best in a fixed position.

    Lanterns can be used safely in a house. In our old place, I mounted plant hanger hooks in strategic spots on the ceiling while we were out of power after a major ice storm. I'd hang a lantern on the hook, where it threw plenty of light and was out of the way. We have a mini-lantern that has oil in it… I should test it soon.

  13. Another great post in the series! Your husband is pretty clever!

  14. This is a wonderful idea (I'm late in commenting but not worried about prizes). I have to say that my circadian rhythms are utterly destroyed once we have daylight savings in the Fall. I don't sleep well again till Spring. There is a lot more to it for some of us with sleep disorders.

    The Amish also don't partake in daylight savings even though they live in societies that do. They just stick to their own time and conduct all business on that schedule. Once my kids graduate from school this year, I'm going to do the same.

  15. Just out of curiosity, what is the total length of burn time if you fill up that half-pint jar? How does it compare to kerosene as far as brightness? This does sound like a great idea, and I think animal fat will be far more easy to come by (in certain regions) than olive oil in the future.

    I'm really enjoying this series a lot! You're giving me many things to think about, for sure!!

  16. Kristina P. - Unfortunately, I can't give you an accurate answer on burn time, except to say "awhile." Deus Ex Machina made the first oil lamp last year, and we burned it off and on throughout the year for thirty minutes to an hour or so each time. Deus Ex Machina estimates about eight hours of burn time with only an inch of oil consumed. As for brightness, it seems comparable to our kerosene lanterns, more so, if we put it on a mirror.

    For those on facebook, my friend has been posting links to clay oil lamps she has been researching and making - replicas of those used in ancient Greece. She posted this book link with instructions on how to make them.

    And for those who were wondering - regular vegetable oil also works ... and just like olive oil is not combustible when a match is tossed in it ;).

  17. Saskatchewan Canada does not observe daylight savings time. I really like that, although it makes it difficult to keep track of what time it is elsewhere! When my watch died a year ago I never did replace it and at home we rarely do anything by the clock. As much as possible I try to let my body decide when I sleep, but it's difficult in our society.

    As for the oil lamps, I love the idea of burning olive oil rather than karosene. I'm on the look-out for an old lantern with a glass chimney that I can use with olive oil. I'd use it all the time!