Before the discovery of oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, lamp oil, known then as "coal oil," was produced from an oil-bearing form of coal known as cannel coal. However, coal-based production was more time consuming and thus more expensive than producing kerosene from liquid crude. Prior to these developments, most Americans burned whale oil in their lamps.
Kerosene, like other petroleum byproducts, is refined from crude mineral oil through the process of fractional distillation. Crude oil is boiled, and as the vapors of the constituent components rise, they are captured and condensed. Crude oil is actually a complex hydrocarbon "soup," which is composed of many long-chain, carbon-based molecules, such as kerosene, gasoline, benzene and propane. Once large quantities of inexpensive kerosene were being refined from crude oil, it spelled the demise of the great New England whaling fleets.
During the infancy of the U.S. petroleum industry, the kerosene produced was not of a consistently high quality. Because it often contained impurities or water, when burned, the kerosene distilled during the late 1800s produced excessive amounts of black smoke. The liquid paraffin burned in today's oil lamps is produced by refining kerosene multiple times. Each step in this process further purifies the product and removes progressively more impurities, which is why many liquid paraffin lamp oils are advertised as being "smoke-free."
Liquid Paraffin versus Paraffin Wax
While they share a portion of the same name, liquid paraffin and paraffin wax are not the same thing. As previously mentioned, crude oil contains hundreds of individual compounds, paraffin wax being one of them. As the wax vapors condense, they congeal into solid paraffin wax. Unlike liquid paraffin, which is highly toxic if ingested, paraffin wax is chemically benign, which is why it has been used for many years to seal jars of homemade jams and jellies.
Liquid Paraffin Types
In addition to the crystal-clear variety, liquid paraffin lamp oil has two other variants. Some types contain dyes, such as red, blue, green or even purple. If your lamp chimney is made of colored glass, you may be able to buy dyed liquid paraffin in the same color. Other liquid paraffin lamp fuels contain a scent, such as evergreen, clove or a floral scent, such as roses. Other varieties are available that are both dyed and scented.