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kerosene / kerosine

A liquid hydrocarbon, or oil extracted from bituminous coal, used for illumination and other purposes. — Webster, 1882

Still the blockade in Minnesota. Paper, kerosene are scarce. – Iroquois (D.T.) Herald, February 16, 1883


In Little House in the Big Woods (Chapter 2, “Winter Days and Winter Nights”), Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote: Ma sat in her rocking chair, sewing by the light of the lamp on the table. The lamp was bright and shiny. There was salt in the bottom of its glass bowl with the kerosene, to keep the kerosene from exploding, and there were bits of red flannel among the salt to make it pretty. It was pretty.

Salt to keep kerosene from exploding. From time to time, people in one Laura Ingalls Wilder group or another have discussed how the salt could have kept the kerosene from exploding. In the mid-19th century, naturally occurring petroleum was separated into three main components – naphtha (which includes gasoline and benzene), kerosene, and paraffin oil – according to their boiling ranges. Naphtha boiled at a lower temperature than kerosene, and the more naphtha in the mix, the more your lamp would sputter. It might even explode. Pure kerosene does not explode, so the “kerosene” people put in their lamps might be any range of purity, something that you just had to take the seller’s word for back then, or until inspectors and regulations started being involved.

One hundred parts of crude petroleum would yield 16.5 parts naphtha, 55 parts kerosene, 19.5 parts paraffin oil, and other coal-oil products. The difference in these by-products was not in kind, but in degree. The difference in naphtha and kerosene was a perfectly arbitrary one; the difference is that naphtha is a little more volatile and inflammable than kerosene, meaning that it doesn’t burn as well as kerosene, but it explodes more readily.

In those days before automobiles, the naphtha part of petroleum was pretty much considered worthless (3 or 4 cents per gallon), and refineries tended to burn it off to provide heat, rather than hang onto it. But the more naphtha they were able to sneak into the more desirable stuff called kerosene, the more waste was avoided and the more profit realized.

It’s the vapor from kerosene that will ignite and explode. So a filled lamp tended not to explode as often as a lamp low on kerosene, because there was less “air space” which might be full of volatile stuff. That’s why the Ingalls family is always filling their lamp. The more naphtha in the mix, the lower the temperature at which the explosion might take place. Of course kerosene lamps get hot; just touch the area around the burner of one when it’s lighted. Metal lamps got hotter than glass ones, making glass ones more desirable.

Now for the salt. If it’s the vapor (and apparently you need just the right amount of air) that ignites and explodes, uh, the salt is lying there on the bottom of the lamp and not anywhere near the vapor, right? In fact, laboratory sodium (not salt; I’m talking about the element) is often stored in kerosene. The United States Strategic Petroleum Reserve (688.5 million barrels of crude oil as of December 1, 2006) is stored in salt domes below the Gulf of Mexico. By the 1890s, newspaper articles were debunking the salt-in-kerosene idea, suggesting it was put there originally to dissolve in any water that might be in the kerosene, which sank to the bottom with the dissolved salt it contained. Salt in kerosene to keep it from exploding is an old wives tale. An issue of Donohoe’s Magazine for 1881 even suggests that red flannel in a lamp also kept it from exploding, because red brick dust and salt were previously used (so it had something to do with the red coloring, perhaps?). The 1909 article below outlines some of the real reasons lamps exploded.

Kerosene Can. The October 1897 Good Housekeeping magazine (page 163) reported that “as contradictory as the terms may seem, the kerosene can may be deemed at once the housekeeper’s most convenient and useful assistant, and her most dangerous and deadly companion.” It was needed in order to easily fill lamps, and was small enough to be poured with ease. Many of the fires that started were the result of someone pouring kerosene on a slow fire (never, ever do that!) and the stream of kerosene igniting, causing the can to be dropped, then there was fire everywhere. As useful as it was, the can had to be kept away from all flames, so it couldn’t be set close to the fireplace or stove.



THE COAL OIL OR KEROSENE LAMP. The Chemistry of Fire. Many children are badly burned and some burned to death by blowing up and by the over turning of coal oil lamps. When a lamp explodes, or is dropped or knocked over and broken, burning oil is splashed about and the clothes of persons within reach of this liquid fire begin to burn upon their bodies.

All the facts of the chemistry of fire, and of explosions as well, can be told in a simple story of what occurs in the light of a coal oil lamp. While the lamp burns the oil slowly disappears, being changed to gases which cannot be seen. Kerosene, being the thinnest of the oils, safe for use in lamps, is drawn rapidly to the top of a wick.

When a match flame is touched to the oil in the wick’s top its heat loosens the atoms of carbon and hydrogen, of which the oil is made. They then unite with atoms of oxygen of the air, for which they have a far greater attraction than they have for each other, causes a flame.

Atoms that are greedy. Each carbon atom is so greedy that it seizes two atoms of oxygen from the air to form carbonic acid, which each pair of hydrogen atoms takes one of oxygen to form water. The carbonic acid, which is a gas, and the water in the form of vapor are carried out of the top of the chimney.

Gunpowder and dynamite do not need air to burn them because they already contain oxygen. Having oxygen of their own they can be set afire by a spark and exploded which shut in a gun or cannon. The force of an explosion is from the solid matter being quickly changed to gas which takes up hundreds of times more room.

The Use of the Chimney. The chimney of a lamp forces the current of fresh air caused by the rising of heated air within it, to pass close to the flame, so that oxygen can be taken from it. This movement of air is called a draft.

Light is made by the particles of carbon becoming white hot before they are burnt up. The hottest flames make no light.

Do not try to blow out a lamp while the flame is high. Doing so may break the chimney or force the flame down into the lamp bowl and cause an explosion. Turn the wick down until the blaze is half its usual size, and then blow over the chimney’s top; not down on it. To turn the blaze quite low and to blow into the burner is more dangerous. If the top of the wick is above the top of the wick it is above the top of the tube when the lamp is not lighted, oil will be drawn up and will not run down over the lamp.

How does a lamp explode? The heating of the brass in the burner may warm the oil until it gives off a vapor in the lamp globe. If the wick is too small to fill the tube the flame will flash down to this vapor and the lamp will blow up.

The screen must be kept open so the flame can breathe. If the chimney is not clear down to the burner, the lamp smokes because the flame gets too much air. When a lamp is turned too high it smokes because there is too much fuel for the air supply.

The brass in the burner and collar should be kept clean and bright so that the heat will pass off. Only dirty burners heat lamps so as to make them explode. When a burner can not be rubbed bright it should be thrown away because it is dangerous.

A lamp should not be set in the sun nor close to a fire, nor hung to the ceiling over a table on which a lamp is used.

Filling the lamp. In filling a lamp, do not take off the burner near another light. The vapor in the bown of the lamp may expand until it reaches a blaze and explodes. Flaming oil is then thrown over every one who is near. Above all, remember that filling a lamp without first putting it out is very dangerous.

When two-thirds of the oil in a lamp has been used it should be filled again. Once each week the oil left in a lamp should be poured back into the can through a piece of cloth on a funnel to filter it clear. This is to remove the dirt which has settled to the bottom.

The Wick. The char should be removed from the wick every day. When a wick is half burned up a new one should be put in. A lamp cared for in this way will give bright, white light and will not blacken the burner nor explode. The burners for round wicks are safer than those which use flat ones.

Air one-eighth oil vapor will blow up, if it touches a flame. In South Dakota there were more than 14 buildings fired in 1907 by the exploding or upsetting of coal oil lamps or lantersn. The damage done by fires started by lamps in this state for the year ending July 1st, 1908, was $9305.00. In the United States last year 340 persons died from being burned by the exploding of lamps.  – Frank A. Craft, South Dakota State Fire Marshall. From the February 19, 1909, De Smet News.


kerosene / kerosine (BW 2; SSL 28; TLW 10, 15-16, 18-19; LTP 19; PG)
     kerosene can / kerosene-can (BPC 30; TLW 15, 33)
     red flannel in kerosene to make the lamp pretty (BW 2)
     salt in kerosene to keep lamp from exploding (BW 2)