Paraffin days

A square, turquoise-coloured metal can with a filler cap on the top and a tap at the bottom of the front of it, the picture on Instagram recalled a world that would seem like something from Victorian times to the Year 7 students I teach.

Paraffin in 2020 comes in tankers to fill heating oil tanks. Type the word into a search engine and offers of next day delivery will appear. Paraffin fifty years ago came a gallon or two at a time. A can would be taken to the hardware shop, or would be filled by Mr Bryant, the hardware merchant who did a round of the village on a Monday evening.

In our house, the bathroom was heated by a paraffin heater, it bore the brand name of Aladdin, but it brought no genie who would cast a magic spell to warm the room. A small, upright, rectangular dark blue and white appliance, it had a grille of three bars at the top of the front side. Below the grille, a panel that formed the remainder of the front side could be lifted away to reveal the burner and the fuel reservoir that was filled from the paraffin can. The grille became burning hot, so hot that my sister once accidentally placed her hand against it and burned three lines across her flesh.

There was probably some regulation against there being paraffin heaters in bathrooms, but, if there was, no-one could ever have enforced it. Homes were much more dangerous places then than they are now.

As dangerous as it was, the paraffin heater did at least bring some warmth into the bathroom. My grandmother’s bathroom had a heater that was mounted on the wall just below the ceiling, its circular electric element was intended to radiate heat as an electric fire would at floor level. If you stood directly in line with the heater, there was some warmth, it did nothing, however, to warm the rest of the room. The Aladdin stove was magical in its effects when compared with the dismal efforts of the electric wall heater.

Aladdin heaters are like those Nineteenth Century domestic appliances which are now to be found only in museums or antique shops, superseded by technological improvements. How odd it will seem to future generations that in the times of the moon landings we were still pouring paraffin into a stove to try to keep ourselves warm.

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6 Responses to Paraffin days

  1. Smoking Scot says:

    Are you sure it only had 3 bars? This is the best I could find based on your colour and description.

    Another useless way my lot had to heat a bathroom was a 200 watt reflective light bulb. Good at blinding me but ignored the principle that hot air rises.

    • Ian says:

      I think ours was squarer at the top, but you could be right about the number of bars. I remember there being three because that was the number of burn marks across my sister’s hand!

      I had forgotten the light bulb heaters!

  2. Timbotoo says:

    My job was to trudge over to the shop that sold paraffin and also to buy the firefighters which were four sticks enclosing an amount of wood shavings soaked in, yes paraffin. They were packed on newspapers in units of six and tied up with string. The paraffin leached through of course and got everywhere.
    The walk took me over a bomb site which was an entire block which had been leveled.

    After that I had the responsibility of cleaning the wicks on the heaters so that they would burn with a clean blue flame and ensuring the tanks were filled.

    I wonder if a seven year old would do that today for their pocket money?

  3. Doonhamer says:

    The drawback was the amount of water vapour produced from burning paraffin.
    Steamed up windows were accepted, as was the pretty hoar frost on inside surfaces of panes.

  4. Ian says:

    There used to be great delight in picking ice from the inside of window panes.

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