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Monday, May 9, 2011

Because fire is pretty

I've been working on oil lamps lately; our group camp is looking to upgrade to something slightly more authentic to the Middle Ages than tiki torches, and oil lamps were ubiquitous throughout our period of study, more prevalent even than candles.  I took a class on them last year (man, I love Pennsic), and using that as a starting point I've gone a-hunting for period-looking substitutes for ancient oil lamps, vendors, and all that good stuff.

It turns out that a lot of candle holders make great lamps.  In fact, it's believed that candle holders were originally a kind of logical extension of the oil lamp, so that when they were first made they were basically just modified versions of an already existing form.  Certainly they carry a lot of similarities to this day.  Observe:

Both of these are sold as candle holders at our local Pier One Imports.
Solid background provided courtesy of my husband (have you ever been in a Pier One?)
Note cameo appearance by swiftly-moving daughter.

I don't have them scanned just now, but these bear a crazily strong resemblance to surviving medieval artifacts, as well as lamps as depicted in countless medieval manuscripts, paintings, and the like.  If anything, these are a little plain in comparison to these accurate reproductions of period lamps.

Here is another candle-holder that I have at home already. My so-called "votive holders" have already been filled partway with water and topped off with some leftover sesame oil (from a delightful evening learning about Filipino cooking, but that's another story) and three homemade float wicks.

The box it came in calls this a three-tiered votive holder.  The stand is a little questionable, but those glass cups bear a very strong resemblance to surviving oil-lamp artifacts. In fact, they're almost replicas themselves, although the makers may not have realized that.

A (blurry) closeup showing the float wick

The float for this type of wick is often made of something flammable like cork.  To protect it from the flame, you stack it with a little disk of metal (brass is period, the aluminum foil shown here isn't but I was experimenting), then punch a hole through both and thread your wick through.  Any natural fiber will do, although I'm told wool doesn't burn well at all.  My class instructor explained that for availability and cost, nothing beats an old-fashioned mop head!  And in fact all three of these wicks were made from one strand of mop, which was originally made of four smaller strands of cotton twisted together.  I just untwisted and separated the strands to get the right size I needed.

...And now you know a cute piece of trivia about mop heads.

Of course, the real question is, how does it look?  The answer:

Pretty darn sweet.

And, although it's anticlimactic, I'll go ahead and include this image just so you can get a better look at everything...
Yep, still pretty darn sweet, even with the camera flash.

Just like other fuel-burning lamps, these wicks are adjustable to keep the smoke to a minimum.  Unlike other fuel-burning lamps, this one smells nice and accidentally ingesting the oil won't kill you.  (See above re: Filipino cooking.  This stuff is slightly darker because it's the used oil, not the extra left in the bottle that we didn't cook with!)

These lamps are safer in another way, too:  vegetable oils in general are also much harder to ignite than petroleum-based fuels, so much so that if this lamp were to tip over, the oil still in the reservoir could possibly extinguish the flame rather than catching fire.  The added water in the bottom helps with that as well, in addition to conserving oil, allowing more light to shine through the reservoir, and acting as a heat shield to protect the reservoir itself.  See, if this lamp were filled only with oil, then as the oil was consumed, the flame would get closer and closer to the bottom of the vessel; the glass would get too hot to handle, and could crack.  (To say nothing of what would happen to the lamps that were made of wood!)  A number of medieval illustrations show people carrying around larger versions of this lamp shape in their bare hands, not unlike the way we carry around a glass of wine or a large snifter-type glass; that would be impossible without filling the bottom with water.

And oh look, I've rambled on yet again and it's 11pm yet again, and I'm really bloody tired, yet again.  Time to go downstairs and blow out the flames, which have been burning steadily for at least the past 3 hours.  Fire is pretty; it's even prettier when you can make it safe.

Special thanks to Bedwyr Danwyn for his research and presentation of much of this material during Pennsic University.

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