Argand Lamp and the Lamp Trimmer

Oil lamps were an alternative to the candle, and, in 1780, the Argand lamp, a type of oil lamp, replaced all oil lamps that had been used since ancient times. The Argand lamp, created by François Pierre Aimé Argand, a Swiss physicist and chemist, had an output of 6 to 10 candela — a base unit to describe the luminous intensity of the light. After Thomas Jefferson saw it in Paris, he brought one that burned whale-oil and gave it to his good friend Charles Thomson.

Oil Lamps and the Lamp Trimmer: Aimé Argan, Public Domain

Aimé Argand. Public domain.

Although Charles Thomson may have owned an Argand lamp, he was not the person who maintained it. Most lamp owners hired a lamp trimmer for this job. The lamp trimmer was responsible to clean the lamp’s glass, fill the lamp with oil, and trim the wick (a braided cotton that held the flame of the lamp).

Lamp trimmers performed this type of job both on land and sea. However, the job was particularly important on ships, as oil lamps, such as the Argand lamp, were the main source of light at sea. They were also the only lighting below deck, which was why it was imperative to keep below-deck lights burning constantly. Moreover, usually, the larger the vessel, the greater the number of lamps required, and the more lamp trimmers needed.

Wick Trimmer From the Late 1890s, Author's Collection

Wick trimmer from the late 1890s, Author’s collection.

The improved brightness of the Argand lamp meant better wick and oil combustion, which reduced the amount of wick trimming needed. But despite the reduction in wick trimming, ship lamp trimmers were constantly busy filling lamps with oil and trimming the wick. They had to trim the wicks in such a way as to cause it to burn evenly, because if the wick was not cut properly, hot spots occurred and these could cause lights to burn ragged, dimly, or unevenly. In some cases they could even smoke.

To trim a wick properly, the wick was cut so that it was either wedge-shaped or rounded to a point. The best tool to accomplish the wick trimming was a wick trimmer, similar to the one pictured above. (The illustration shows a 5 1/2 inch long wick trimmer made of fine steel and nickel-plated. Note the shelf on one side of the wick trimmer. This was where the trimmings of the wick were suppose to fall so they could be thrown away later). The object in trimming the wick was to create a wick that would burn cleanly all the way up and emit a bright steady light by having the flame be at least the width of the wick, which also prevented the lamp from burning unevenly or dimly.

In 1868, an American educator and foremost domestic expert, Catharine Esther Beecher, provided instructions for housewives on how to properly maintain their lamps at home. To accomplish the lamp cleaning, she suggested using the following items:

“A lamp-filler, with a spout, small at the end, and turned up to prevent oil from dripping; a ball of wickyarn, and a basket to hold it; a lamp-trimmer [also known as a wick trimmer or wick cutter]…or a pair of sharp scissors; a small soap-cup and soap; some pearlash … and several soft cloths, to wash the articles, and towels to wipe them.”[1]

Catharine Esther Beecher, Public Domain

Catharine Esther Beecher. Public domain.

Depending on how much a lamp was used, it was cleaned and taken apart daily or, at the very least, once a week. The inside of the lamp and oil can were cleaned with one tablespoon pearlash and one quart water. After drying the parts, the oil was refilled. However, care was taken to ensure it was not overfilled, as lamps were sometimes knocked over and could start fires. The wick was then either raised and trimmed or replaced.

Several tricks provided by Beecher also helped lamps burn more efficiently. For example, she suggested fresh oil was better than older oil, as supposedly “long kept, [oil] grows thick, and does not burn well.”[2] Dipping wicks in vinegar was said to help the wicks “burn clearer than they otherwise would.”[3]

The Argand lamp was in turned replaced by the kerosene lamp around 1850, the same year that Madame Tussaud, the famous wax sculptor, died in England. Kerosene was cheaper to burn than oil and produced a whiter flame. Kerosene also traveled up the wick and eliminated the need for complicated mechanisms to feed the fuel to the burner. However, in the twentieth century the kerosene lamp was replaced with something even more efficient and much cleaner. Its replacement, the electric light bulb!


  • [1] Beecher, Catharine Esther, A Treatise on Domestic Economy, 1868, p. 282.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 283.

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