Updated: Jul 11
I love looking back to the family farm as it was in the 1940s. Before the introduction of electricity, energy was provided for the house by burning wood in the kitchen stove. Light came from candles or oil lamps.
The oil we burned was kerosene, a light form of petroleum. It came in square metal cans, each holding 4 gallons [about 10 litres].
Kerosene is a good fuel for home use, as it starts to burn at a much higher temperature than does petrol, so it is less likely to catch fire accidentally. We used it, to fill the bowls of glass lamps. A length of cotton fabric dangled from a circular metal holder into the kero, and the liquid soaked up the fabric by capillary action. When the cotton was fully soaked, we lit the cotton— the wick —with a match, and the liquid soaking the cotton vapourised, and began to burn as well. So the flame actually burnt very little wick, and mostly consumed kero fumes from the tank below.
Then we topped the lamp with a clear glass chimney, to protect the flame from drafts, and let the kero burn steadily. We controlled the size of the flame, and the amount of light it produced, by raising or lowering the height of the exposed wick, with a small wheel at the side of the metal holder. Of course, burning the kero produced some smoke, which eventually coated the inside of the glass chimney with fine soot, which had to be cleaned regularly.
As well as lamps, Mum burnt kerosene to operate a refrigerator. Here the tank was a metal rectangular box, just above floor level, under the refrigerator cabinet. It too had a wick soaking up the kero, and it too was lit with a match. Mum was the only one who could manage this machine, and it caused her a lot of heartache. Often the windowless room was filled with acrid smoke when the height of the exposed wick was not just ‘right’. Then she would adjust the flame many times before it burned cleanly again.
But the refrigerator made life much more bearable on the farm. There was always an enamel billy of cold water waiting when we came inside, out of the hot sun. We could keep butter, milk and cream there without the fear of it going sour. We could have jellies and junkets, and other cold puddings. Cooked meat would stay fresh for days. And we could even, as a very special treat, have home-made ice-cream, made in two shallow ice-block trays, after Mum had spent all day beating and re-beating the mixture with her hand-operated egg-beaters. The ice-cream was thick, solid and heavy, but cold and sweet, and we loved it.
A new kitten found a very warm nest, curled up on the kero tank of the refrigerator, beside the burning wick.
Mum also had a ‘petrol’ iron, which burnt kero to heat its smooth base. You can read more about how she used this iron in my book, The Redgens of Redford.
We also had a room-heater that burnt kero, though we did not often use it. If the nights were cold, we gathered around the kitchen stove, while the radio played in the nearby lounge. But the warmest place on those nights was in bed, and we went there early.
An important part of buying and using kerosene, was the tins it came in. They were light and strong, probably aluminium, and farmers modified them for many uses. It usually began with the top being removed carefully, with any rough edges being carefully smoothed. Then a small hole would be made at the top of two opposing sides, perhaps by driving a nail through the metal. Then a length of fencing wire would be threaded through the holes, with the ends bent upwards on the outside. And thus was made a bucket with a wire handle.
These buckets had endless uses on the farm. Many were reserved for the dairy, where farmers used them when they milked cows by hand. Or they might carry skim milk to pigs or to hand-feed calves. Others would be used to bring grain or chaff to feed special animals.
They were used in farm-houses as well. Many sat on stoves, heating water for baths. Others carried water for washing clothes, or to carry wet clothes to be pegged out to dry. At community gatherings, they sat on open fires, heating water for endless cups of tea.
Sometimes the kero tins were put to other uses. With one side removed, they became drawers in rough wooden cabinets. Sometimes both ends were removed, the tins were flattened, and then used to make watertight roofs or walls, of huts and sheds. One even made a banjo.
So the metal kerosene tin, was a packaging material that was almost as valuable, as the contents it protected.