Some of us develop romantic notions now and then about our Iowa pioneer ancestors gathered by candlelight around supper tables in their cozy log cabins. When, in fact, that rarely occurred.
Cabins were small, but not necessarily cozy --- and candles were a luxury, even when homemade as most were.
Most of our log cabin forebears, when in need of light at night, gathered around a grease lamp like this one (from the Lucas County Historical Society collection) instead.
This came to mind yesterday while transcribing James G. Robinson's pioneer memoir of life in temporary shelter during 1848 in Cedar Township while log cabin building was in progress. "The wind sometimes made our lard lamp a little troublesome," he wrote, "yet the lights that were hung out at creation's first dawn were never obscured, only by a cloud occasionally."
These little lamps, although smokey, smelly and sometimes dangerous, were inexpensive and powered by household scraps --- bacon drippings, for example, or lard or some other variety of grease.
Operation was very simple --- the reservoir was filled with grease and a twist of grease-impregnated cloth lay along the spout, wicking it up. The cloth then burned to the grease line providing a bright little --- usually smokey --- light.
The hook, which allowed it to be suspended from a chair back or a nail or a peg, usually also incorporated a pick that could be driven into the logs (or chinks) of a cabin wall.
It's hard to say how long these items remained in common use in Lucas County, but my maternal grandfather, born in 1875, remembered his family using a "betty" lamp on the prairies of English Township when he was a child.
A betty lamp, from the German "besser" or "better," was an improved grease lamp. The reservoirs were lidded and the wick emerged from a hole in the lid, making operation a little less messy and smokey.
This little lamp came to the historical society during 1978 from Wilma (Sanders) Hollingshead (1900-1979) and had been used in the pioneer log cabins of of Adam M. and Esther S. (Bretz) Noland, maternal grandparents of her husband, Lloyd (1901-1971).
The Nolands didn't arrive in Lucas County until 1897, when they settled in the Bethel Church neighborhood of Cedar Township, so their pioneer cabins would have been located elsewhere. By 1897, grease and betty lamps had for the most part been replaced by more familiar and far brighter glass-chimney lamps fueled first by coal oil, then by kerosene.
The Nolands married in Scott County during 1857, then moved to Hardin County where they lived for many years before relocating in Lucas County. So the lamp most likely was in use in Scott and/or Hardin counties during the early years, then packed and brought along to Lucas County as an heirloom.