Artificial light is useful for extending working time beyond sunset, for providing comfort in the long dark hours of winter, and for finding one’s way in the night. Without electricity or batteries, solar cells or wind up flashlights, lamps and candles can be made just as they have been for thousands of years.
The cave paintings of the Upper Paleolithic were done by the light of lamps that used a lump of animal fat as fuel and lichen, moss, or juniper twigs as wicks. The light of these crude lamps was sufficient to produce some of the earliest known works of art in pitch-black caves. Some of these lamps were merely rocks with slight, natural hollows in them, others were carved from soft stone to form handles for carrying and bowls for the fat and wick. The carved bowl lamps are not dissimilar to lamps of pottery or tin used into the 19th century in frontier America. (I own a copy of one of these, called a Brown Betty.) As the wick burns, the fat melts and the liquid is drawn up the wick to provide fuel for the flame. The problem with these lamps is when the fuel runs out, the wick will continue to burn in an uncontrolled manner, destroying the wick and creating a fire hazard. Later, far superior designs addressed this problem, although the open bowl style of lamp can still be found today.
The ancient Egyptians and other Mediterranean cultures had a better design, a better fuel, and a better wick. These lamps, made of glazed pottery or metal, run a fiber wick through a narrow opening that snuffs out the flame when the wick burns down and keeps it from creating an uncontrolled blaze once the fuel is depleted. Oil, a far superior fuel to fat, can be added through the hole in the top of the lamp while the flame is still burning allowing for nearly continuous operation. The olive oil used in these lamps is an especially desirable fuel as it burns without smoke or odor. Anyone who has ever burned tallow candles or rushes (porous reeds soaked in animal fat) can understand the appeal of a less fragrant fuel such as plant oil, especially in closed in spaces.
Light From The Sea
In oceangoing cultures, whale oil came to be used for lamps, but this had the disadvantages of being dangerous to harvest and not especially bright when burned. For this reason, whale oil lamps usually had two wicks (I have one with three wicks) to produce more light from a single reservoir. Other fish oils, more easily harvested, have also been used. All had a strong odor when burned. The end of the American Civil War saw the introduction and spread across the country of kerosene lamps. Kerosene provides a superior quality of light compared to most oils and is less explosive that the briefly popular camphine, a combination of turpentine and grain alcohol. Camphine burned with a very bright white light, but required a specialized lamp with a strong draw to burn properly (occasionally antique shops will label a camphine lamp as a whale oil lamp because it has two wicks, but if the wick nipples are quite long and angled away from one another, that is a camphine lamp).
While kerosene is superior to its predecessors, it is not easy to produce at home, is derived from petrochemicals which may one day be difficult to access, and, when aerosolized, is explosive. It can produce an unpleasant smell as well, and if the wick is not tended, may smoke and produce soot. Having said all that, kerosene provides bright and reliable light when used correctly in a well-maintained lantern. Propane has a similar issue with being derived from petrochemicals, but is currently readily available. Methane can be produced from animal manure and other home-generated sources, but a certain amount infrastructure (biogas generator) is required, and the risk of explosion remains an issue. Propane and methane are both useful for cooking as well as lighting if a source can be assured and the proper equipment is available and maintained.
For oil lamps and candles, wicks of cotton, linen or other natural fibers work well (I’ve even seen directions for using cotton balls to make wicks, but haven’t tried it), especially if they are treated (see next paragraph). In some lamps, the wicking, that is the drawing up of fuel, is so efficient that the wick burns little if at all as long as fuel remains in the reservoir. I own a lamp that uses a wick made of glass fibers enclosed in a glass tube that draws the lamp oil without the wick itself being consumed. It does not produce an especially bright flame, but never needs to be replaced. However, it only works with lamp oil (kerosene) and not with the more viscous oils.
For candles, where the wick is consumed, the fiber should be treated with a solution of borax and salt. This makes the wick burn to ash and crumble in such a way that it doesn’t have to be trimmed as the candle burns down. It also stiffens the wick so it stays out of the wax as it melts. The treatment solution should be 1 cup of water, 1 tablespoon of salt, and 3 tablespoons of borax. This is brought to a simmer (not a boil) to thoroughly dissolve the salts, then cooled. Soak the fiber in the solution for 24 hours then let it dry completely, preferably by hanging the wick to keep it straight. Of course, wicking material is also commercially available and could be a useful addition to an emergency pantry.
Practical and Sustainable
I find oil lamps to be both practical and sustainable. Oil is readily available from many kinds of plants as well as some animals. Olives, corn, rape seed, peanuts, tree nuts, and many other oil sources can be used. In fact, nearly any kind of seed or nut can produce oil, though the extraction process may be less practical for some than for others. Anyone who makes their own peanut butter or buys “natural” peanut butter will be familiar with the oil separating out. This can be poured off and used as a fuel as can sesame and sunflower oils.
Candles are a wonderful invention and can use many kinds of wax. Beeswax candles are the gold standard for high quality candles. The wax is a useful byproduct of beekeeping for the purposes of pollination and producing honey that can be used for cooking, wound treatment, and making mead. Wax can also be gotten from plants like bayberry and coconuts, as well as from petrochemicals in the form of paraffin. Even animal fats can be used for candles, though the smell may be off-putting. The so-called candle fish, when dried, can be burned because of the high oil content in its skin, but the smell is unpleasant. Even fat from cooking could be used–I’ve often been tempted to sink a wick into my bacon grease can, but have so far resisted the urge. I suspect the smell of burning bacon grease would be a problem. I know that Crisco (hydrogenated vegetable oil) was once popular for sticking in a wick and burning for light, but these days the containers are cardboard, so if you want to try this, I recommend putting it in a metal can.
Candles can be made in molds, cans, tubes, even in hollows in wet sand with the wicks anchored on the bottom and held taut by being tied to a stick across the top of the mold. Alternately, layers of wax can be built up by dipping weighted wicks in melted wax or by pouring wax over the weighted wick, slowly building as long and as thick a candle as you have the wax and patience for (this is how huge candles were made for medieval cathedrals). Wicks for candles should be at least an inch longer than the final length of the candle and correctly sized to burn at the same rate as the wax melts. Candle-making guides can provide information on the ratio of wick size to diameter of the finished candle. If the wick is too large, the candle will burn too vigorously and become a fire hazard; if it is too small, the melted wax will fall in on the candle and snuff it out. A large candle can have multiple wicks to increase the amount of light. Mirrors and magnifiers can be used to amplify the available light from a candle or a lamp.
When I camp, I often use an ancient-Roman design olive oil lamp because it provides a pleasant and surprisingly useful level of light. I use it as a night light, but as with all open flames, I practice extreme caution. Besides the danger of fire, lamps and candles also present the hazard of consuming oxygen and therefore depleting it from the air in a closed room. Also, as with any open flame, there are the hazards of producing carbon dioxide and, if not burning efficiently, carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide binds strongly to hemoglobin in the blood making it impossible for oxygen to bind and causing suffocation, sometimes even after the victim is removed to fresh air because the carbon monoxide does not release easily.
Because carbon dioxide is heavier than air, without proper ventilation, anyone at ground level including small children and pets can be at risk of suffocation if a lot of unvented flames are in use in a tightly sealed room. Homemaking books from the turn of the last century give guidance as to how much oxygen is used by various light sources. They note that electric light uses no oxygen at all, a modern marvel. I strongly recommend that if you plan to use any combustible material for cooking, lighting, heat, or any other use, that you test it in the circumstances under which you plan to use it. With as many people and animals as you plan to house and doing whatever you plan to do, monitor the space for carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide before you have to use your space for an emergency, especially if the space is tightly enclosed such as a bunker. Test for at least twenty-four hours and preferably on a calm, windless day so the results will not be skewed by dissipating winds that might not always be in play. I’d even throw in an extra dog and person, just to be sure.
Finally, keep in mind that in using plant oil or animal fat as a light source, you are removing it from the food supply and the heat and energy provided by burning the dietary fat. Bee’s wax and other kinds of waxes are not digestible, so their use for candles is not a loss, but they can be useful for waterproofing. In an extreme survival situation, being in the dark may be preferable to freezing, starving, or being wet. Then again, the spiritual warmth of light may be the edge you need to survive.