Before the invention of the kerosene or paraffin lamp, lighting was a dirty and dangerous affair. Candles were quite expensive to buy, and candle making, a chore mainly reserved for winter, was time consuming and messy. When they were burned they could gutter and smoke and had to be constantly trimmed. Primitive lamps smoked, smelled bad and worst of all, could spill their fuel, which could then ignite. Kerosene, which is distilled from petroleum, was patented in the early 1850s by Abraham Gesner, a Nova Scotia-born geologist. Kerosene appeared on the market in the 1860s as a lamp fuel, and quickly replaced lamps that used whale oil, camphene, lard and similar fluids. Paraffin, by the way, is the British version of kerosene, and does not have anything to do with paraffin wax.
The use of kerosene was assisted by more efficient construction in lamps, including improvements in the chimney, wicks, and the control wheel which adjusted the height of the wick. The light from a kerosene lamp was steady and much more brilliant than the light given off by whale oil lamps. When the lamp was properly cleaned and maintained, the kerosene it burned was odorless. Still, proper lamp cleaning could be arduous, especially if there were lamps and lanterns all over the house. Diary entries from the late 19th century complained about having to clean and refill the chambers of kerosene lamps every single day. Of course, this labor was done by the women of the house.
Still, even with the coming of the kerosene lamp, houses were not lit nearly as brilliantly as they are today. Even some of the "best" homes could only afford one or at most two kerosene lamps per room. So, the corner of the room where the lamp stand would be bright lit, while the lampless corners of the room would still be in shadow.
The popularity of kerosene and the ease of burning it caused a great variation in the design of the kerosene or paraffin lamp. Many were made of cased glass decorated by overlay. Carved alabaster glass lamps that looked like a white form of jade were quite popular. They were taller than most table lamps and some had pedestals made of bronze, marble, glass or cased glass that matched the bowl of the lamp. They were also made of red, blue or green crystal, and sometimes the colored crystal was cut away so that clear areas were formed, creating lamps of great beauty made even more beautiful when they were lit. Even today these lamps, which were very popular around the end of the 19th century and the very beginning of the 20th, are quite valuable. Kerosene lamps are still used, mostly for decorative purposes, today.