When satellite images of Earth by night, taken from outer space, show us a planet ablaze with electric light, it is hard to imagine a time when there were no street lights, and when homes and businesses were lighted only by candles or oil lamps. Neither of them put out much light, and the lamps required constant care. This was recalled years later by Elizabeth H. Sherman, who ran the Sherman House, an early Boise hotel that stood near the Capitol:
“In most of the rooms we still depended upon lamps which had to be cleaned and refilled every day. Aside from this there was always the unpleasantness of smoky rooms whenever a careless or forgetful occupant left the lamp burning during his absence.”
An ad in the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman of Jan. 8, 1867, announced that H. Hessberg & Co. had just received 800 gallons of coal oil, a fuel for lamps, similar to kerosene. It was one of a number of oils used for lighting. An ad in the Portland Oregonian of Jan. 15, 1859, printed the year before the gold rush to Idaho began, listed what was available at the time: “Light! Light! Can be found for sale at the Drug Store at all times and in any quantities: Sperm oil, Camphene, Lard oil, Burning fluid, Polar oil. — Smith & Davis, Brick store, Front St., Portland, Oregon.” As many as 6 to 8 barrels of “sperm oil” could be extracted from the massive head of a single sperm whale. By 1946 some species of whales were in danger of extinction, leading to the formation of an International Whaling Commission to protect endangered species and to ban whale-hunting in some areas. Several nations with a whaling tradition and a present-day industry resist regulation.
Camphene is now used in the preparation of fragrances and as an additive to food for flavoring. Its use as a fuel for lamps was limited because of its explosive nature. The danger of fire from oil lamps, whatever the fuel used, was great enough without using one that could explode.
Legend persists that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 started when a cow kicked over a kerosene lantern in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn. Whatever its cause, the fire destroyed most of the city and took the lives of nearly 300 people. Earlier that same year an item appeared in the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman telling readers, “The new gasoline lamp at F.M. Davis & Co.’s is worth looking at. It gives a light like gas, at about half or two-thirds the cost of kerosene.” In August, “Templar Hall is now lighted with the new patent gasoline lamps. This arrangement, it is believed, will furnish a better light than kerosene and at a reduced cost.”
The ever-present danger of fire from kerosene lamps was noted by the Statesman with this whimsical reminder: “Unless you feel a ‘true inwardness,’ and your many sins are canceled in the book above, and you are at peace with all mankind, and are ready to leave this vale of sorrow, don’t attempt to pour kerosene into a lighted lamp. If you do, you’ll get ‘busted’ sure.”
Not until January 1875 was there mention in the Statesman of a street light for Downtown Boise: “Quite Nice. — We discover that a new and magnificent lamp, or lantern, has just been swung up in front of the entrance to the Turner House, which, when lighted, affords a good light, and is quite a relief to night pedestrians.”
Ever in the lead in urging civic improvements, the Statesman editorialized in December 1879, “Would it not be well to put up lamp posts and have lights at the corner of some of our streets?” In 1881, as Downtown merchants began to erect lamps in front of their places of business, the paper enthusiastically praised each one as it appeared with items like this: “The stage company have put up a fine large lamp in front of their office, which greatly facilitates the loading and unloading of the stages, and adds much to the convenience of pedestrians. This spirit of improvement is spreading and cannot be too extensively carried out.”
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.