Amish Lighting

From Living Without Electricity (by Stephen Scott and Kenneth Pellman):

“The majority of Old Order Amish use lamps that burn “white,” or clear, gasoline or naphtha.  The fuel tank in these lamps is filled with compressed air.  The air forces the fuel to the generator tube, where it is vaporized, and then to the mantles, where it is burned.

Mantles are loosely woven fabric bags treated with a rare earth mineral called thorium.  Before actual use, the fiber of the mantles is burned away, leaving only a fragile mineral skeleton.  When the lamp is lit, the mantles glow very brightly but do not flame after the first few seconds.”

Amish gas lamp
A great low-tech way to light with one drawback.  The heat it produces is a killer in summer.  If I sit too long around one of these it means the fast track to dehydration.  And I don’t even wear heavy broadfall pants.

Scott and Pellman explain that the more conservative Amish often use old-style kerosene lamps.  This summer the old-style kerosene lamp was my back-up at Abe and Sarah’s when the flashlight batteries had died and I hadn’t finished my pre-bedtime reading.

Using the more traditional lighting devices such as this and oil lamps means there is also the higher possibility of fire, though of course Amish are careful to try to prevent that.

Yet there have been numerous instances of fires in Amish homes, sometimes with tragic results, and it is a concern.

Many Amish use home fire-alarm systems.  When staying with the Lapps this summer, the portable floor lamp got a bit too close to the downstairs wall alarm, melting the seal and triggering the fairly crude device.

With a bit of a struggle, Daniel, Mary and I got it re-triggered and ready to go again.   It had something of a wind-up alarm clock feel to it.  But it sure was loud and no doubt it would startle even the most tired bones out of sleep.

Sometimes salespeople sell these alarms in Amish areas, aware of the existing need in the community.  To hear the Amish tell it, the prices they charge can often be on the high side.

Still, overpaying for a fire alarm is a lot better than not having one when you need it.

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    9 Comments

    1. I have never seen one of the lights as in your first picture. I do like kerosene lamps for sure myself if i am going to use anything. Always a danger no matter how careful one is.

    2. Emily

      Perhaps this is a silly question, but couldn’t the Amish just use regular smoke alarms? They’re battery-operated and don’t sound quite as crazy as the alarm you describe.

    3. Exactly Michelle. They give off a nice light though.

      Emily, probably so and probably some do. I don’t know why they had that particular model. They had actually just gotten it.

    4. Rick

      Speaking of kerosene, there was an accident in the New Wilmington PA Amish community this past June in which a young woman was burned when the device she was lighting exploded. She died 2 weeks later, leaving a husband and 2 small children. It was initially thought she may have used gas by mistake, but they later discovered that gas had leaked into the kerosene tanks at the distributor.

    5. Matt from CT

      Mechanical Heat Detectors, as described in the post, are effective for “flaming” fires.

      They should be used in conjunction with a “photoelectric” smoke detector which detects cooler, smouldering fires.

      (The MHD industry itself has a shaky reputation due to some multi-level marketing problems, and some of the large players are under FTC orders do to it…the detectors are fine, how they’re marketed isn’t.)

      The most common smoke detectors in homes is an “ionization” type, which again is good for flaming fires by not against smouldering fires.

      Ideally you should invest in both types (MHD or Ionization plus a photoelectric) — some better grade of home detectors do combine ionization and photoelectric together in one unit.

      While you’re at the store buying those, a CO alarm wouldn’t be bad either, and I’ve seen those occassionally give the first alarm for a situation that would’ve soon become a fire. TWICE that’s been from someone who cleaned out a woodstove and put the ashes in a cardboard box or plastic bucket that they then left in the basement. Never underestimate people’s ability to be creative in demonstrating profound lack of common sense.

    6. Rick, I heard about that, very unfortunate story. I didn’t hear that anyone else had problems with the tainted fuel and I hope that was the case.

      Matt thanks for the dose of enlightenment on fire protection. Human creativity knows no bounds. I have to say that I’ve been guilty of a few ‘creative’ moves of my own before, though thankfully none involving fire.

    7. Pingback: Amish lead the way to a “clean energy” future?
    8. Heather Smith

      safety of white gas lights

      This is an old article, but I’ll try a question anyway. I was interested in purchasing a couple of these exact lights over in Kalona. Eric, or anyone else– do you know if they give off any toxic fumes or are especially dangerous? I wouldn’t think so, as I see them everywhere, but I’ve heard some ex-Amish say the lights were poisonous. I tend to take this with a grain of salt, but I wondered when I saw Lehman’s did not carry this kind. maybe theses lights have issues? I just love that whooshing sound they make and the heat is nice in Winter. Anyway, if anyone has the scoop on their safety I’d appreciate it.

    9. Bert Clayton

      Amish supplies

      Could anyone tell me where Amish goods can be bought besides Lehman’s? Particularly gas/kerosene lights? As some, they’ll act as a middleman and might jack the price up because so many are fascinated with Amish. But finding products to provide for the home as the Amish do would be nice as well as buying Amish made if there isn’t the tourist price. Can anyone help?
      As a gas/kerosene pressurized lantern would be beneficial.
      Thank you.