Granny Houston's kerosene lamps


All I ever knew was her last name; her whole family just called her Granny. She was an invalid with arthritic hip problems. But she made up for it by sharing her stories and remembrances.

She had been born on a farm. She came to California with her husband, “Blackie,” and settled in Los Angeles. She had a daughter named Nancy who she brought to our Cub Scout and P.T.A meetings at the Fifty-Second Street School on Hoover Avenue.

Parents all laughed when Mr. Leonard Wheatley (who we called Rawhide Wheatley) said that P.T.A. stood for “Poor Tired Adults.” We all enjoyed the parent meetings, school, and brother and sisterhood. We worked to iron out our math and spelling problems.

I was taking Leonard’s and Beulah’s son, Mike Whitely, to school every day. When Nancy found out about it, Nancy said her kids (Dennis and Mike) were having trouble at their Vernon Avenue school and wondered if she could register them using our address, which did not work because of school detectives separating districts.

We were invited to their home on Thirty-Seventh Street, just above Vernon Avenue, to visit and talk things over. The Coliseum was very close and plainly visible from Hoover and Thirty-Seventh Street.

Granny Houston took to anyone she could talk to and proceeded to show us her kerosene lamps as well as her glass collection. Her prized pieces were Aladdin lamps from schools or big hotels or homes that had silver reflector mirrors on them with number one Pearl Oil; they blazed out white light. Blackie put up shelves facing east in the dining room; there glittered her lamps and glass garden. The shelves were very sturdy to hold the weight of very large wall-mounted swing-out Aladdin lamps on ornate hinges and smaller railroad lamps, even Acetylene/carbine mine or bicycle lights.

During the blackouts of WWII, she was ready with her number one Pearl Oil and Blue Diamond stick matches.

Granny explained that when she lived on the farm, they had to use old leaky storm lanterns or smelly candles. Both were dangerous and not bright. Candles caused fires and kerosene lanterns of soldered tin also easily dented and leaked.

Then the railroads adopted the Aladdin lamps and others came out with reflectors that were more efficient and used on ships and naval vessels, until Edison bulbs and Westinghouse generators replaced them, about 1910.

But in the early days of rural electrification and electrical failures, they fired up the Aladdin lamps with their leak-proof copper caps and also barn storm lanterns.

Granny said the sun turned the glass purple like the Model T headlights from the lead in the glass or red from gold in the glass. Cobalt or silver glass turned blue or green, and then came cheap imports and machine blown thin glass with colored dyes.

In emergency power failures and earthquakes, I want plenty of batteries and L.E.D. flashlights. I still hope to buy a newly manufactured Aladdin lamp and some Pearl Oil and boxes of Blue Diamond stick wooden matches. My friend, Rosie, is still praying to find purple Model T headlights.

Anthony M. Caldwell is a member of the writing class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. It is held off-campus at the Norwalk Senior Center.

Anthony Caldwell