Appalachian Dialect

Lamp Oil, Coal Oil, Kerosene Oil

oil lamp

lamp oil noun Kerosene, used in lamps in former days and often in home remedies. Same as coal oil, kerosene oil.
1936 LAMSAS (Swain Co NC). 1937 Hall Coll. Mingus Creek NC Never knowed nothin’ about lamps or lamp oils till I was nearly grown. (Martha Jane Crisp). 1949 Kurah Word Geog East US 31 The West Midland word for kerosene is lamp oil…in Western North Carolina and adjoining parts of Virginia it competes with kerosene. 1961 Seeman Arms of MT 35 If a thumb is bitten off by the family mule the stump is merely dipped in”lamp oil” and has a rag wrapped around it. 1969 Madden and Jones Walker Sisters 29 For a remedy [for “pneumonia fever”] her sisters put “lamp oil” (kerosene) on a woolen cloth and placed the cloth on the chest, rubbing camphorated oil on the chest to keep the lamp oil from burning. 1972 Pederson et al. LAGS (Cocke Co TN). 1986 Pederson et al. LAGS 9 of 31 (29%) of LAGS Speakers using term were from E Tenn.

Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English

In my recent remedies video I mentioned that I did not know for sure what coal oil was. I guessed that it was lamp oil/kerosene and several folks commented to let me know my suspicions were correct. I should have known the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English would have an entry for it.

Pap told me kerosene was used for various medicinal remedies when he was a boy. I said I didn’t see how people treated with something so toxic kept from dying. Pap said in those days it was a totally different substance than the one we’re familiar with today. He wasn’t necessarily saying it was a cure all or that he thought it was something folks should do, he was just sharing one of the remedies he often seen used when he was growing up in the mountains of North Carolina.


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  • Reply
    September 5, 2021 at 1:10 pm

    My great aunt was born in 1917. Her mother was from Indiana of German descent and her father was from east Kentucky of English and Scotch Irish descent, all hardscrabble folks. She once told me about the big coal oil lamp that sat in the middle of her grandmother’s living room. I have the treasured handmade crocheted tablecloth that sat under that lamp, complete with oil stains. My aunt told me that once when she was little her grandmother (who raised her after her mother died) used coal oil to wash her hair when she caught lice at school.

  • Reply
    Snuffy Smiff
    September 3, 2021 at 2:48 pm

    Kerosene and turpentine-both were mainstays in my mountain Granny’s extensive medicine chest. Human or animal, she had a remedy for most anything that could happen to either on a working farm. She did not believe in doctors and the few times she actually summoned one was when she was giving birth to one of her nine children and most of them arrived before the doctor did. She was an amazing woman and I still miss her everyday!

  • Reply
    Wayne H.
    August 30, 2021 at 4:16 pm

    I can remember as a small child being given a spoon of sugar with kerosene on it by my granmother…don’t remember what the remedy was for.

  • Reply
    Betsy Wilson
    August 28, 2021 at 12:59 am

    Tipper, I was taught that Coal Oil was derived from coal and that Kerosene was from petroleum. I can remember my Grandparents used coal oil for their lamps and for a few medicinal purposes. (On minor cuts, etc. Don’t remember ingesting it though. We had plenty of horrible things that we had to take by mouth: “Chill Tonic”, “Castor Oil”, “Syrup of Pepsin” and even diluted Red Linement from the Watkins man that was designed for Man or Beast”) I and my three older siblings were raised by our maternal Grandpareents in Southern Okla., in the house built by my Grandfather’s parents. My Grandad was born in 1876, in Alabama, and my Grandmother was also born in Alabama in 1889. They met and married after they met in Oklahoma.

  • Reply
    Gene Smith
    August 26, 2021 at 10:07 pm

    My dad said that when he was a little boy he ate so many collards that his mother had to tie coal oil rags around his ankles to keep the cut worms off. Just a little coal oil joke there, folks.

    I watched a neighbor castrate all the male pigs in a big litter. Afterward he poured a small amount of kerosene over each incision. I guess that was sufficient treatment to prevent infection. I don’t recall that he lost any “patients.”

  • Reply
    Dennis M Morgan
    August 26, 2021 at 6:32 pm

    When my mother was a child they did not have electricity but her family used “lamp oil”. I like to see the light made by a kerosene lamp and like to hear Paul sing When Its Lamp Lighting Time in the Valley.

    Also when I was a child the standard treatment for a dog that had mange was to pour kerosene on the dog. I have seen this done; the dog being treated acted like the cure was worse than having the mange. My father was sort of the local veterinarian and pouring kerosene on a dog (and other animals) was one of his standard treatments.

  • Reply
    Donald Wells
    August 26, 2021 at 4:03 pm

    A few gallons of kerosene has pretty much always been around here in one of the sheds.When the power goes out in the wintertime,we have always used the old kerosene heaters for emergency backup heat.That being said, kerosene was handy for any cuts or scrapes. Its A good antiseptic. Tipper another interesting subject,Thank You.
    The comments were good, as always.

  • Reply
    Ron Bass
    August 26, 2021 at 2:42 pm

    We’ve used kerosene for cuts all my life . It works great, no infections and doesn’t get sore.
    I’ve heard furnest used as meaning farthest away as, my son lives the furnest away from me of all my kids. I’ve also used stymied, meaning something I can’t figure out, as the problem with my tractor sure has me stymied.
    Keep up the great work you are doing. You blog is a blessing.

  • Reply
    August 26, 2021 at 2:40 pm

    Kat, thank you for the compliment, I am not any good at writing and since my wife passed away on a lot of mornings I hardly have the will power to even get out of bed. What I write is the truth, my family and my wife’s family for several generations were all just poor country folks that were not able to buy much in a store and we pretty much had to do for ourselves.

    Another thing kerosene was used for was fuel in some of the older tractors especially Farmalls. These tractors had a small tank for gas and a large tank for kerosene or something called dissulate( that is misspelled)) but I was told it was the same as kerosene. You cranked it on gasoline and after tractor got warm switched to the kerosene. Before cutting tractor off you switch back to gas and let tractor run long enough to fill carburetor back up with gas or it would not start up on kerosene. The M Farmall would use 50 or more gallons of gas in about 10 hours if pulling hard with it. These tractors were made in the 40’s to the early 50’s . I have a 1953 Farmall Super H that can be used this way .

  • Reply
    August 26, 2021 at 1:48 pm

    As a child I also had cuts and punctures on my feet treated with a rag soaked in coal oil. I once received a severe cut to my thumb and my grandmother took care of it. She cleaned it, put sugar on it, wrapped a cloth around it, poured coal on it because she was out of turpentine and wrapped it with several layers of cloth. After a few days she took the wrap off and cleaned it up and it was fine. I still have a scar more than an inch long and no loss of use. The Summer I was five I had a bad injury to my hand that included a broken bone in the hand and a broken finger. She also treated that and I started school with my arm in a sling. That hand still works fine over 70 years later.

  • Reply
    Jerry Wright
    August 26, 2021 at 1:26 pm

    When I was a kid I stepped on a broken bottle and cut my foot real bad. My mom put coal oil on it and wrapped it up. In a few days it healed, so I guess that the coal oil did what it was supposed to do.

  • Reply
    August 26, 2021 at 11:57 am

    My grandparents always called kerosene coal oil. They used it in lamps. Also when we were berry picking we were dressed up in long pants and long sleeves and Grandma would soak a rag in kerosene and tie it around our wrists to keep down chiggers. It never worked with the chiggers, we were eaten up, but the blackberries were oh so good! Your posts bring back wonderful memories. Thank you.

  • Reply
    August 26, 2021 at 11:38 am

    My grandmothers used kerosene/coal oil as remedies for my parents and their siblings as they grew up. Even taking a teaspoon mixed with boiled bark of cherry for cough med. Every time I heard the story, I shuddered thinking how did they survive as I thought the kerosene was toxic. Between the grandmothers, they raised 16 children to be grown and never lost one to taking kerosene.

  • Reply
    Donna W
    August 26, 2021 at 10:37 am

    In Missouri when I was growing up, we called it coal oil. My mother said when she was a child, Grandma wormed them every spring by giving them each a teaspoon of sugar with a drop of coal oil in it.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    August 26, 2021 at 10:36 am

    I smashed the end of my middle finger once with a 7 x 9 green crosstie. The forklift driver immediately took me to the diesel tank and put diesel fuel on it. I can’t say what effect it had as I was taken to the doctor also. At any rate, I had no infection.

    When I was small I heard “coal oil” most often. It gradually gave way to kerosene. Nowadays “lamp oil” is the scentless version, at least to my mind. As Pap said, I’m sure that is definitely not the same as old fashioned coal oil. We still keep two kerosene lamps for when the power goes out.

    Sort of off the subject but I like the kerosene lamps to electric conversions. Our bedside lamp is one of those. A good thing about them is that they can easily be changed back and forth as long as the size is a correct match to the opening in the oil reservoir. Another good thing about them is that, as electrics, the oil reservoir can be filled with something pretty. We put green glass cabochon-shaped nuggets in ours as the glass already had a greenish tint.

  • Reply
    August 26, 2021 at 10:31 am

    These old remedies are fascinating to study. I have noticed something with you, Tipper, that you have in common with me. You like to know and understand things, so anything that seems like a puzzle to you will be looked into.
    I can remember some relatives who only had what we called kerosene lamps. They had no electricity into the remote areas where they lived, but they seemed to have a happy simple life many might envy. I look back and remember how much fun we had, because they always seemed to have so much company visiting. Folks certainly do not visit like they once did. With everybody’s tight schedules nowadays I don’t know how they woud handle it if a carload suddenly showed up with no call to let you know they would be dropping by. Enjoyed your video very much.

  • Reply
    Kat Swanson
    August 26, 2021 at 10:25 am

    Randy…you have such good stories …I look forward to reading them . I hope you do more writing them down. Every life is worth a novel…I heard that years ago…and your perspective is very unique.

  • Reply
    August 26, 2021 at 9:52 am

    Tipper, as a child mom and dad use kerosene on things like that to. One time I split the back of my ankle on a nail and first thing dad did was went and got the kerosene and put on it. We kept putting it on for a few days. It was a back cut, took about a month to heal. We just didnt go to the doctor back then. My oldest daughter stepped on a nail and it did go in the middle of her foot. I got the kerosene and put in on her foot but I still took her to the ER. That wasn’t a pretty sight.

  • Reply
    George Pettie
    August 26, 2021 at 9:27 am

    When I was a kid my kinfolk and their Virginia and Maryland neighbors all called kerosene “coal oil.” Coal oil was oil extracted from coal in the 19th century, and had a trade name–Kerosene. After the civil war producers switched to distilling Kerosene from crude oil instead of coal. But calling it “coal oil” has lingered for more than a century.

  • Reply
    August 26, 2021 at 9:10 am

    My parents didn’t use lamp oil for home remedies as far as I can remember. Sugar and turpentine was used for cuts, bee stings and just about anything else that made kids cry. Mercurochrome, Merthiolate and Iodine could be found in every household. I was lucky to find a few bottles several years ago when I stopped at an old store that I remember from my childhood. It was probably really old, but I thought I had found a treasure.

  • Reply
    August 26, 2021 at 9:05 am

    Stepped on a mail as a child and dad had me soak my foot in kerosene! It stung but no infection

  • Reply
    August 26, 2021 at 9:01 am

    An 85 yr old beloved church member tells of tying kerosene soaked rags around wrists and ankles before picking wild blackberries. No chigger bites.

  • Reply
    Margie G for get some kerosene oil
    August 26, 2021 at 8:54 am

    Coal oil was used with as much success then as so called medicine of today. As a RN who’s highly educated and used to nurse (as opposed to dancing and lying) I’m recommending lamp oil to be in your first aid Arsenal today. Who knows if tomorrow you can even still get in or out of a hospital without being sold off. Believe it or not if it makes your feelers feel better. Truth hurts and so do severe infected cuts so nip it in the bud. Cheap and effective is not hospital nor medical talk and they will POO POO you all the way out of common sense.

  • Reply
    August 26, 2021 at 8:36 am

    I remember growing up we always put kerosene on the horses legs this time of year to keep. Flies from laying eggs on them. The horse would lick them and get a parasite (Bots). It was also used as a disinfectant on any cuts, man or beast

  • Reply
    Brad Byers
    August 26, 2021 at 8:29 am

    My grandpa told me that when he and grandma were first married he went to fill the coal oil lamp but was clear out of it. At the time coal oil was seven cents a gallon. He had exactly seven cents to his name so he took his jug and headed for town on foot. The jug got heavy after it was full, so about a mile from home he found some twine and made a sling out of it to rest his finger from the hole in the jug handle. He was pretty happy with his ingenuity and continued on his way. He made it about 100 yards when the twine broke and the jug busted on the ground. So there he was with no money, no coal oil, and now no jug to put it in. He had the rest of the walk home to rehearse his story to grandma.

    • Reply
      Don Byers
      August 26, 2021 at 3:06 pm

      Hi, Brad! My name is Don Byers and I live at Blairsville, GA. Would like to hear from you. AM sure that we are related. My email address is [email protected].

  • Reply
    Bob Creswell
    August 26, 2021 at 7:52 am

    Tipper, I am presently reading the book, My Appalachia, an autobiographical account of growing up in Bell County, Kentucky. The author recorded various family members, and these transcribed accounts make up a significant portion of the book. I have run across two terms that I have never heard, and they are not found in the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English. “Furniest” and “Stymie”. Wondering if they are familiar to you.

    • Reply
      August 27, 2021 at 2:15 pm

      Bob-I’ve heard stymie but not the other one. Is the book by Sidney Saylor Farr?

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 26, 2021 at 7:07 am

    Pap was usually correct, I wonder what was in the old coal oil that helped people. I also wonder about turpentine, we bought it at the pharmacy. It was the atriseptic my mother used on all cuts and scrapes when I was a child and today you can’t even buy it.
    AND the next big question is…will the prescription medication we use today going to be condimed in the future?

  • Reply
    August 26, 2021 at 6:50 am

    My family were believers in using kerosene oil on cuts and things like that. It seems like I would stick a nail in my foot every summer and Daddy would tie a kerosene rag around it. We never had a cut to get infected. In the early 70’s I had a job of grinding textile card machine flats with stiff wire tops. You would keep your hands scratched up all the time. Because of how this was done my hands were constantly in kerosene, they never got sore or infected. We never used any of it as a remedy for anything else. My father in law worked in a machine shop and the owner/boss would keep bottles of something called Red Oil to put on cuts. I think you can still buy this at some of the older drug stores.

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