Posted by Sheila Connolly
Since I live in Massachusetts and love old things, for the past few years I have gone to the Brimfield Antique Show, which bills itself as the largest outdoor antique show in the country. I'll believe it–three times a year hundreds of vendors take over an entire town and spread over acres. If you can't find the weird antique item you're looking for there, it probably doesn't exist.
When I go, I try to have a plan–a list of things I'm looking for. Otherwise I would wander around in a daze for hours, overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of stuff (and appalled at how many items being marketed as antiques I already have and use daily, but that's another story). One of the items I have been looking for is an oil lamp, as backup for those times when the local electric power goes out (which it has done twice in the past week). This past trip I found one, at a reasonable price, and even haggled the seller down a bit. Victory!
So I bring my treasure home, and then I realize I have no idea how to make it work. I know it's missing a few pieces (the glass parts that crown it, which obviously are easily broken), but beyond that I am mystified. I find myself staring at the creature and trying to figure out what goes where–or how I can get it apart to clean it. And what is "apart" in this case? How many pieces are there? How do I disassemble it without destroying something essential?
I had to stop and think about this. Once upon a time, less than a century ago, this would have been an ordinary household item. Everyone (or at least the hired help) knew how to take it apart and put it back together, how to clean it, how to fill it and adjust the wick, how to achieve the best flame. Me, I'm lucky if I can identify which part is which. My first brilliant observation was that the thing was hollow–I mean, you can look straight through it from top to bottom. I always thought the tank that held the fuel was a single chamber. Nope. (And now it's clear to me why it's so easy to convert these lamps for electricity–but I'm not going to do that.)
I can tell there is a wick. An old, dirty one. The mechanism that makes it go up and down is in good shape–except the wick won't move. I know I have to remove it, but how? I soak it in hot water. Nothing happens. I dry it out in a low oven (great–now I'm baking my lamp), hoping it will shrivel. No dice. In the end, I take some slender pliers and pull the blasted thing out thread by thread. I am nothing if not determined.
So I have reduced the lamp to its component parts (with the help of WD-40), and I know I need replacement parts. Where do I find lamp parts? Wonder of wonders, the Internet provides! There are sites out there that are happy to supply you with the missing pieces–nay, thrilled to make available authentic reproduction chimneys and globes and mantles, oh my! (And to charge a pretty penny for them!) But, of course, to order these you have to know what to ask for.
First you need to know which model you've got, because each one seems to have a different set of replacement parts. Mine, says the turny thingy on the wick elevator, is an Aladdin 11. The 11 was manufactured between 1922 and 1928. My word–oil (or kerosene) lamps were still in use that late? Silly me–I didn't realize. Armed with this information, I seek out a website for a parts supplier, and quickly realize I still don't know what I need. Luckily this supplier will respond to e-mail queries, so I e-mail him with a list of dumb questions. He responds quickly–thanking me for a very coherent list (apparently there are a lot of people out there more confused than I am), which he can answer, and he does. Of course, as you can guess, the parts I need will quickly add up to more than I paid for the parts I actually have, but I am going to make this work. And if I wanted to order all the parts, it would cost a whole lot more, so somewhere in here I am ahead of the game. I think.
I still haven't ordered the parts, but I'm working up to it. What has intrigued me about this whole process is the collision between past and present. I wanted a light that harked back to earlier, simpler days–and to make that happen, I had to go to the Internet for the information I needed. What was once common knowledge is now arcane–but still available if you know where to look.