Of Magic and Miracles

I grew up by gaslight. Seems impossible to believe 90 or so years later, but I didn’t see the magic of electricity until I was five or six years old. Prior to that, faintly hissing gas mantles had provided what could best be described as a faint glow to ward off winter dark.

The mantles were small and had a cheap pottery collar with a fragile mesh-net body. They clipped to a wall holder to be switched on and lit by match as gas filled the mantle. One of my chores when I was a little boy, but capable of running to the nearby hardware store, (the “Ironmonger’s”), was to pick up mantle replacements for a penny or two.

They didn’t last long and pennies were short during the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, so we often went to bed by candlelight or the smelly, smoky light of the oil lamp, the source of household light before the flick of the gaslight switch.

It all seems so far away, almost unbelievable, yet memory flickers to recall isolated incidents as I stumbled with the rest of civilization out of the darkness of oil (kerosene) lamps and then domestic gas into the brilliance of electricity with its thousands of other comforts.

I can still vividly remember one oil lamp in my grandfather’s cottage in the heart of the English Midlands. The entire cottage was lit by oil lamps with all but one being the standard variety, lamps you could carry from room to room and place on a bedside table or chest of drawers. The one exception had a huge but beautifully decorated porcelain body to hold the kerosene and a glass chimney looking twice the normal size. The lamp hung over the kitchen-dining area suspended by finely crafted golden chains and pulleys.

I can remember the first time I saw my grandfather light it. I know it was just before Christmas because I was holding a just slaughtered chicken by its legs, head down, wrapped tightly in cloth the prevent blood dripping. It was Granddad’s annual contribution to our Christmas dinner. It was close to dusk when he told me to step aside and watch as he grasped the base of the lamp and gently lowered it, the chains and pulleys just whispering as the lamp descended from its gloomy home among the rafters. He lifted the chimney, applied a struck match to the wick, replaced the glass and gently raised the lamp to the appropriate height for dinner. With the meal over, the lamp was extinguished and Granddad manipulated gold chains until, with the softest sounds of friction, the lamp ascended to the high ceiling shadows and disappeared.

To me, it was magic and although I pestered my mother every step of the three-mile chicken-swinging walk from Gramps’ to home for an explanation, I was not prepared to accept one. I liked the magic idea much better than the factual chain and pulley story. I had seen the lamp descend from the shadows and after dinner almost silently ascend and disappear. Magic.

A few months after Christmas that year all the houses on our street lost their gas mantles and oil lamps and welcomed electricity … another magical event. A flick of one switch would flood a room with light; we could listen to far away voices or a band, or vaudeville. A miracle.

A few weeks later Granddad’s cottage was electrified and I asked what happened to the glorious oil lamp with the golden chains and pulleys. “I guess they threw it out,” my mother said. “I mean they wouldn’t have any use for it now, would they, with electric lights in every room?”

And thus, I learned before I was 10 that magic is not a sound foundation for belief and even the most marvelous miracles usually carry a price tag.

3 comments

  1. Although I am younger than you Jim (just turned 75), I was 10 before I experienced the magic of electricity. It was in rural Saskatchewan and we had just benefited from Tommy Douglas’s rural electrification program. Before that it was kerosene lamps and lanterns, a radio with several batteries, each larger than a picnic hamper, and a clothes iron that was heated on a coal stove.

    Electricity temporarily destroyed community. Before it arrived a family would stay at the kitchen table after supper, sharing a lamp and telling stories, reading, listening to the radio or playing games. With electricity one could go to a separate room and read alone. Later, television helped to reunite the family.

    Nowadays with everyone staring at a smartphone community has all but disappeared.

  2. In 1972 I attended a British Army course. One evening several of us went to visit a very old pub in the district. I was surprised to see that there were no electric lights in the patrons’ area, oil lamps lit the room.
    My stay was cut short when I started to develop what we, in the army, referred to as “tent eye”: irritation from the burning oil fumes. The regular patrons must have developed a tolerance to these fumes.

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