Rediscovering the Fat Lamp
By Chris Witmer
Reprinted from the Grundsau Intelligencer, the newsletter of the Tulpehocken Associators, which encompasses Conrad Weiser's Ballation, L'Armie de la Reine, and the German Regiment
For those of you who enjoy focusing on the fine points of living history, two words: fat lamp. This rather plebian sounding method of illumination should receive a greater emphasis among us re-enactor types. In fact, this humble technology form once rivaled, if not exceeded, the candle as an illumination source in early America.
Fat lamps are identified under various headings: crusie lamps, grease lamps, slot lamps, and a particular sub-category known as betty lamps. As a native Pennsylvanian, I grew up with the "fat lamp" nomenclature. My great-grandfather used the Pennsylvania Dutch (PD) term "die fett amschel." (This was also the metaphor he used to describe his favorite chicken part, die fett amscheli, or little fat lamp. This was the part of the bird that jumps over the fence last.) In PD, another lamp term is also "die fettlicht."
Generally, lamps were made of wrought iron, sheet iron, sheet brass, or clay (e.g., redware), and 18th Century lamps are typically distinguished from their 19th Century descendants by the fact that most earlier types frequently had no lids. A good sampling of the wide variety of forms fat lamps came in can be seen in George C. Neumann's book, Early American Antique Country Furnishings, pp. 54-57.
The diagnostic elements of the hanging fat lamp are shown in figure I. The pan is the container for the fuel. A vertical arm is attached to the pan which connects to a combination hook and spike as well as the wick pick.
The pan contains one or more wicks to burn the fuel. The hook and spike is a versatile suspensory tool that can be jammed into an available joint (e.g., a floor joist, fence post, crack in the wall, etc.) or any convenient place the hook can be secured. The wick pick is the tool to adjust the position of the wick in the pan. Many original fat lamps often lose their picks over time.
Any type of vegetable or animal fat will serve as fuel to burn, although results will vary. I like animal tallow. My particular preference is beef tallow, although I am informed sheep tallow is quite good also. Tallow can be gotten from any butcher shop, often for free as this material is considered waste.
To prepare it, I put the raw tallow in a pan on the stove and heat it enought to turn it to liquid. After this, I pour it into the pan of the lamp, whereby it should solidify again in less than half an hour. Beef tallow when burning has a unique smell, but it is not obnoxious like fish oil and is generally not very smokey if the wick is kept short.
When the lamp is lit, it will conduct sufficient heat to liquify the entire pan eventually. Tallow otherwise will remain solid at room temperature. I find this especially important when stowing my fat lamp in my haversack. Fuels that are liquid at room temperature are a logistical nuisance a they reqire a separate container for carrying. Tallow fuel is great, because it remains in the pan, and it's ready to light as soon as you pull the lamp out.
Any material that burns completely (i.e., natural fibers) and is able to conduct the type of fuel you are using will work as a wick. Like fuel types, results vary on wick materials, also. Traditional types of wicks include flax tow, narrow linen tape, or strips of old clothing. My favorite is a strip of ticking folded over and sewn shut at the edges. This forms a flat tube that seems to work well conveying fuel. I don't like the modern round wicks like the type made for Coleman lanterns because a) there were no Coleman lanterns in the 18th Century; and b) the modern round wicks are very tightly woven and don't conduct tallow fuel that well. As a result, the round wicks can be difficult to keep lit until a sufficient amount of the tallow melts and works its way up the fibers.
If you must "farb" it up a little bit, I recommend using one of the strands from a cotton mop head. These types of strands work well with tallow fuels as they are loosely twisted and are think, thus being a good material to hold a sufficient amount of fuel in the wick to make lighting easier.
Pros and Cons
From a contemporary view, the candle is the traditional illumination device of choice. Whoever heard of a romantic dinner for two by fat lamp light?
However, from a historical view, the fat lamp was often the luminaire of choice. Fat lamps were cheaper to use and have a less complicated production process. Candles are very labor intensive to make with the molding or dipping process. They are also more expensive in materials, as good quality candles require two materials — tallow and wax. On the other hand, a fat lamp is ready to go as soon as you put fuel in the pan.
Candles also don't travel well. They have a tendency to melt, get broke or smashed in your field kit. The fat lamp I use is made from wrought iron and is relatively indestructible. Fat lamps also take up a lot less room than a candle lantern.
I find fat lamps put out at least as much light as a candle or more, depending on how the wick is adjusted. The amount of light put out by a fat lamp can also be increased by using more than one wick placed randomly along the edge of the pan, or some lamps have more than one lip in order to accept multiple wicks.
The one major disadvantage I see with the fat lamp is that it has an open flame. Any such lighting device with an open flame should not be left unattended and is NOT suitable for use inside a tent.
If you missed the big blow out William Penn's birthday sale on fat lamps at Conrad Weiser's trading post, I suggest you contact the below listed purveyors for reasonable reproductions: