TBT: How kerosene lanterns first lit China - Energy Factor
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TBT: How kerosene lanterns first lit China

July 27, 2017

At the turn of the 20th century, many farmers and urban dwellers across China didn’t have adequate light. The root of the problem was poorly made lamps that gave minimal light.

In 1907, Standard Oil, a predecessor to ExxonMobil, produced a solution: the Mei Foo kerosene lamp, which translates in Chinese to “beautiful confidence.” The lamps were inexpensive and fueled by kerosene, one gallon of which could keep a lamp lit for more than 240 hours, much longer than candles or vegetable oil. In its first year, more than 850,000 lamps were sold in China at around 7.5 cents each, a price designed to ensure as many people as possible could purchase them.

The lamps became a household staple. They provided entire families with well-lit homes and helped schoolchildren read later into the night.

As China modernized, Standard Oil helped light the way. Mei Foo lamps and the millions of gallons of kerosene needed to fuel them boosted intercontinental trade and created numerous jobs, not just in China, but across Southeast Asia.

Until World War II, Standard Oil’s investment in China was the largest direct investment in Asia from an American company. Throughout the early 20th century, you couldn’t talk about Chinese energy without mentioning Standard Oil, and to this day, the Mei Foo lamp remains a prized possession among antique collectors.

Cases of kerosene are stacked inside a warehouse in Java, Indonesia, circa 1910

Mule pack train carrying boxes of kerosene through town; taken between Haiphong, Vietnam, and Yunnan (Kunning), China, circa 1900-1932

Mule pack train carrying boxes of kerosene through town; taken between Haiphong, Vietnam, and Yunnan (Kunming), China, circa 1900-1932

Above header image: Mei foo lamp

Sources:
One Hundred Twenty-Five Years of History (hardcopy book) – ExxonMobil
Jack Mulcaire blog: America & China, Part 1: Rockefeller Origins
Standard Oil Bulletin, Standard Oil Company of California, May, 1913, Volume 1

Photo credits:
All images credit: ExxonMobil Historical Collection, di_03519, di_03536, di_08873, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

Tags: TBT, Mei Foo lamp, Kerosene Lamp, China, Asia
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