Throwback Thursday: Death to the Kerosene Lamp

The publication The Next Greatest Thing was conceived by staff members at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in 1985 as a way to recognize the Rural Electrification Administration’s (REA) 50th anniversary. Three years of research were put into the making of the publication. The Next Greatest Thing recognizes the bumpy road the REA traversed over in the construction of their institution, including where we were before electricity, how they were started, and how we got to where we are today. This blog post is an excerpt from The Next Greatest Thing to show the metaphorical death of the kerosene lamp. All information and quotes in this post were gathered from The Next Greatest Thing.

Before electricity, there was kerosene lamps. Ask a child today what a kerosene lamp is and the response will most likely be big eyes filled with confusion. As a matter of fact, many adults today may not even know what a kerosene lamp is. For nearly a century, our nation has been blessed with electricity. At some point, we forgot where we started. The kerosene lamp is a perfect symbol to reflect where our country once was, and how far we have come. And oh my, how far we’ve come.

Though the kerosene lamp provided light in darkness, taking care of the lamp was a job all on its own. The book, The Next Greatest Thing, mentioned how difficult kerosene lamps could be. “Lighting the kerosene lamp was a frustrating job … Keeping it lit was even more frustrating. It burned straight across for only a moment, and then would either flare up or die down to an inadequate level.” When they were successful at getting the lamp lit with the wick right where they needed it, “Even when the wick was trimmed just right, a kerosene lamp provided only limited illumination,” (page 36).

Not only was it difficult to get the kerosene lamp lit, it also proved dangerous at times and could hinder farmers’ work. Farmers had to get up before dawn to milk the cow. “Milking was done by the dim light of kerosene lanterns … Or it was done in the dark. And there was a constant danger of fire with kerosene lamps, and even a spark could burn down a hay-filled barn, and destroy a farmer’s last chance of holding on to his place, so many farmers were afraid to use a lantern in the barn,” (page 16).

Until electricity struck.

Houses were soon illuminated with light that didn’t need to be monitored or attended to. There was a significantly lower risk of fire and there was no extra action past flipping a switch to be sure the lights stayed on. In a rural community in Texas, they received electricity. “At a crossroads community in Texas, the night the lines were energized, ranchers filed past a newly dug ‘grave,’ throwing their kerosene lamps into the pit as sign of their deliverance,” (page 127). Thereby ending the kerosene lamp generation.


Tombstone for a kerosene lamp. The epitaph reads, “Here lies a coal-oil lamp. Buried here May 3, 1941, by the Adams Electric Cooperative as a symbol of the drudgery and toil which its member-families bore far longer than was necessary or right but which, with the energization of their own power system are now abolished for all time.” Image Credit: Record Group 221, Records of the Rural Electrification Administration, Department of Agriculture. Rural Electrification Administration. Photographic Prints of Electrification and Telephone Improvements in the Rural United States, 1936 – 1964. National Archives Identifier: 540048, HMS Entry Number: 221-P.

Following the rural Texas community’s example, ceremonies all across the United States were held to bury kerosene lamps. “From June of 1936, well into the 1940s, ceremonies such as these took place as the energization of local co-ops swept across the land,” (page 127). Though the ceremonies held some humor, many of the ceremonies were taken quite literally. “Not all were tongue-in-cheek. Plenty of them had lots of serious words; but the sense of joy, of high moment, and great accomplishment was always there. Emotions could not be hidden,” (page 127).

The eradication of the kerosene lamps showed a symbolic step into the future of electricity. No longer relying on the insufficient amount of light and the constant danger of losing a barn to fire made life significantly easier for farmers.

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