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July 2021

Object Title: Lamp

Object Number: 1992.3.41

By SGHT South Georgia Director Sarah Lurcock

The lamp sits on a windowsill in the Larsen Room amongst a collection of other lighting objects including a candlestick. It is likely overlooked by many of the museum visitors. It may look unremarkable, but this object is part of the story of oil lighting , and the part South Georgia played in it.

The oil lamp, especially the chimney, is fragile. Look closely and you will see that the glass chimney is cracked at the top, and yet it survived the end of whaling in South Georgia, in the mid 1960’s, for long enough to be found and salvaged from the whaling station at Stromness in around 1991, just as the South Georgia Museum was being set up.

Whaling in the North started becoming commercially important in the Middle Ages when the whale oil was needed to burn to produce light using oil lamps. A lot more oil was needed when whale oil lamps were installed in cities to provide street lighting. By 1900 the whale stocks in the northern whaling grounds were so depleted that the fresh hunting grounds of the south were a boon.

The first whaling station at South Georgia, the first in the southern hemisphere, was built in 1904 at Grytviken – now home to the Museum – at around the same time, the use of whale oil was changing.

Very early oil lamps were just a dish of oil with a wick partly submerged in the oil and then lit. You may be familiar with them if you have seen collections of Roman objects. Oils burnt might be animal or vegetable oils, for instance olive oil.  With time, the design of oil lamps changed a little but they were still very primitive. The wick began to be encased in first an open, then a closed, funnel. I am surprised to find that commercially-made whale oil lamps of such simple design were still being produced in the mid-1900s, and you can see an example of one on the windowsill nearby.  Object 1992.5.40, a whale oil lamp salvaged from the whaling station at Prince Olav Harbour, is a hunk of metal and would have been advertised as an “unbreakable” oil lamp. This robust design was especially useful in industrial settings.

An “Unbreakable” whale oil lamp from the collection
An advert for a “Unbreakable” kettle torch lamp










Early whale-oil lamps brought better lighting for people of modest means who had hitherto relied on candles for lighting.  I have noticed that the new oil lamps often resemble the candle sticks they replaced. They have a tall stem supporting the oil reservoir, and I have found one product that converted a candlestick into an oil lamp. Sperm Whale oil was especially prized for lighting. The fine clear oil burnt cleanly, more brightly and produced less smoke than other train oils (train oil is a term often used for oils produced by rendering the bubbler of animals).

More sophisticated designs of oil lamps were developed. In the 18th Century Swiss chemist Aime Argand developed his “Argand lamp”. An oil lamp that had cylindrical wick that made a larger flame and a glass cylinder for a chimney that directed the draft over the flame, which made light brighter and also made lamp safer to carry. This is similar to the design of our Object of the Month.

Advert for Arctic oil lamps showing their candlestick form. Some oil lamps were designed to convert your candlestick into an oil lamp








As Grytviken was being established, the use of whale oil in lighting was being abandoned. Other lighting sources were being used, such as gas manufactured from coal and oil. Gas became the dominant fuel to light urban areas, factories and homes. The discovery of oil in North America lead to the development of the petrochemical industry and manufacture of products like Kerosene. Kerosene took over from sperm oil as the main illuminant.
Did our lamp ever burn whale oil? It is unlikely that whale oil was used and a cheap alternative such as Kerosene would have been burnt.

It is rather odd to think that the whalers might have been importing these petroleum based oils for their lighting whilst producing ship loads of whale oil to go back the other way!