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Aladdin Lamps Print E-mail
Minaki News - Stories
Sunday, 11 April 2010 12:44

By Jake MacDonald

            To brighten up the cottage on a dark night all you need is one of those pressurized gas lanterns. Twenty strokes of the plunger and whomp, presto, you¹ve got about 100 watts of white-hot light. And the easiest way to satisfy your hunger, for that matter, is to stand in front of an open fridge and stuff big handfuls of smoked ham in your mouth. Sooner or later, though, you reach a point where you want to show a little class, and that’s when it’s time to put some thought into your lighting.

         My place at the lake doesn’t have hydro, and like most off-the grid cottagers, I’ve pursued many paths of enlightenment. I have a handsome old railway lantern, but it produces only a dim glow, and getting it trimmed and running properly is a bit vexatious. The aforementioned pressurized gas lanterns throw a garish light and their constant hiss drowns out the distant loon cries, pattering rain, and other sounds of the night. Propane lights are silent and bright, but they come with the worrisome possibility that one day, some innocent youngster will blow up the cottage. Flat-wick kerosene lanterns are relatively safe, but they require constant adjustment and cleaning. And even when they’re burning perfectly, they cast such a wan glow that you need to arrange two or three of them in a circle just to read a magazine.

            I always assumed that there was no perfect solution to the lighting problem, but a few years ago I heard rumours of a wonderful non-electric light called an Aladdin Lamp. According to allegations, the Aladdin lamp burns silently, uses inexpensive kerosene, and casts a warm, golden glow. I hunted down a photograph of the lamp and saw that it was beautiful too, with brass fittings and a tall fluted chimney that was as slender as a champagne glass. I did more research and learned that back in the 1890s, before electricity was widely-available in rural areas, a Nebraska farm boy named Victor Johnson devised a cone-shaped mantel made of rare earth mesh that became so hot that it glowed with a steady light equal to a 60 watt bulb. The warm light from that lamp was such a magical improvement over conventional kerosene lamps that Johnson called it the “Aladdin Lamp”, and it quickly became state-of-the art lighting for the 1930s. Johnson was a talented huckster as well as an inventor, and offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could produce a lamp that would out-perform his Aladdin. The reward was never collected, and eventually he sold seven million lamps.

            In our modern high-tech environment, it’s difficult to appreciate how that lamp must have improved everyday life in those gloomy, winter-bound rural homes. How many children gathered in its glow while scrawling their homework? How many tens of thousands of nights did it preside over fervent battles of cribbage and Monopoly? How many wedding gowns were unbuttoned by its warm light? How many babies delivered, and last rites performed under its glow? By the late 1940s, rural electrification campaigns had sprung up across North America, and the Aladdin lamp quickly fell out of favour. But you can still find them in antique stores, and you can buy new ones via the internet. My silver Aladdin works well at the dinner table, casting a warm glow that’s a soft as a candle. Like a cedar canoe, an old woollen sweaters, or a cast-iron stove, it seems to possess a sort of timeless dignity that fits well with cottage living. And on a rainy night, there’s nothing better than reading a book by its warm and silent light.