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Shattered Illusions: Reconsidering Glassware through the Lens of Care examines how upper-class Savannahians in the 19th century used the wealth they accumulated through the exploitation of enslaved and domestic labor to acquire luxurious objects for their homes, in this case glassware. These fragile objects have been passed down through generations of wealthy Savannahians, to which we are able to appreciate today, but disconnected from the origins of the generations of the enslaved and domestic labor behind caring for them. In addition to showcasing the allure of these brilliant objects, Shattered Illusions will reframe the glassware as the subjects of those individuals’ care. Featuring objects from Telfair’s permanent collection of colored, etched, and cut glass, this exhibition will ask viewers to consider the labor behind their continual preservation.

This exhibition is organized by Telfair Museums and curated by Ahmauri Williams-Alford, assistant curator of historical interpretation.

The Dangers of Caring for Kerosene Lamps


Boston and Sandwich Glass Company (1826–1888); Overlay lamp, c. 1865–1875; blown, overlaid, frosted, and cut glass, and marble, gilt brass; gift of Elizabeth Feld Herzberg, 2021.31.a–d.

The introduction of kerosene lamps rapidly transformed mid 19th-century lighting systems. Adorning the living spaces of wealthy homes, these lamps allowed entertainment to stretch further into the night and provided more time for family and social life. Though convenient for affluent families, this advancement created a burdensome and often dangerous chore for enslaved and domestic servants. To clean the fluid cistern and wipe the lamp, servants had to mix a solution of boiling water and pearlash, which could cause skin irritation and burns, at least every two weeks. Refueling the lamps with highly flammable kerosene increased the danger. Newspapers from the period are flooded with accounts of lamp explosions within homes and businesses, often with catastrophic or fatal results. These incidents frequently occurred when servants tried to fill the lamp with oil while the wick was lit.


Newspaper Ad Transcriptions

“Accident. – A negro woman belonging to Mr. John Lama, residing in Harris street was severely burnt by explosion of a fluid lamp which she was endeavoring to fill while the wick was lighted. The woman escaped into the street, her clothing in a blaze, and would no doubt have been burned to death but the timely assistance of those attracted by her cries.”

“A Lamp Explosion. Last evening, about a quarter past nine o’clock, a lamp exploded in the house on Broughton street, near Bull. The lady who had the lamp in her hand at the time had presence of mind to throw it in the fireplace. The bright light in the room attracted the attention of the passers-by, but by the time any of them could reach the scene of the explosion the fire was out.”

“SHOCKING FATALITY – FLUID LAMP EXPLOSION – A FEMALE BURNED TO DEATH. – About 7 o’clock, Saturday evening, as Mrs. Washington Castle, residing at No. 15 Alexander street, was in the act of trimming a glass lamp filled with burning fluid, it being lighted at the time, she accidently let it fall to floor, when it exploded. The blazing fluid was scattered over her clothes, and in a moment she was completely enveloped in flames. In her fright she ran down stairs shrieking in agonized tones, and finally sunk to the floor exhausted. Before assistance could be rendered the unfortunate female, her clothes were entirely consumed; her face being so horribly burned, swollen, blackened and disfigured, as to leave no traces of its being that of a human being, and indeed over the whole body the deep burns had left their truculent ravages. Death resulted at 11 ½ o’clock. Mrs. Castle was much loved and respected by a large circle of acquaintances, and this sad event has cast gloom and desolation over a happy household.

‘A little daughter of the deceased, aged 12, who was present at the time of the accident, with great presence of mind put out the flames which had communicated to the carpet.”

“ANOTHER FATAL LAMP EXPLOSION. – We heard from the Centreville (Md.) Sentinel that of the 8th inst., a dreadful accident occurred in that town. It originated in carelessly replenishing an etherial lamp with fluid from a [?] while the lamp was burning, and the sufferer were a colored woman named Serena K[?] and her three children. All of them were shockingly burned by the explosion of the lamp, and two have since died – the mother and the youngest child, an infant – the other two children may possibly recover.”

“It appears by the report that we had thirty-seven fires in the city last month – loss about $150, 000. Six were caused by the explosion of camphene lamps. By the bye this reminds me that a communication on this subject is promised in a Boston paper, written by Prof. Webster, who is to be executed this day week for the murder of Dr. Parkman. This is a curious subject to have occupied the attention of a man under such circumstances.”

“CAMPHENE EXPLOSION. – Another camphene explosion occurred at Baltimore on Friday evening, being in the house of Mr. J. Heddinger, in Caroline street, near Baltimore, which was near being attended with serious consequences. It appears that a lighted camphene lamp was sitting upon the supper table, beside which was also a can containing a quantity of the fluid, when a cat jumped upon the table, and upsetting the lamp, caused an explosion of the same, and also communicated the fire to the can, which exploded. In an instant the whole room was enveloped in flames, and his wife and child, the only persons therein at the time, were compelled to pass directly through the same, it being the only means of escape. Fortunately, they succeeded in reaching the yard uninjured, and their screams attracting the attention of two gentlemen named Rippey, who reside next door, they were promptly on the spot and succeeded in subduing the fire, though not until the carpeting, clothing, &c., in the room, had been consumed. But for the promptness and energy with which they acted, the entire building must have been destroyed.”

“A NOBLE SERVANT GIRL. – Mary Nugent, a hired girl of Pitsburg [sic], was horribly burned by the explosion of a camphene lamp on Monday night. She first attempted to extinguish the flames by throwing herself into a tub of water, but failing in this, started to reach the street. At the back gate, however, she fell exhausted, and when the neighbors, attracted by the light, reached her she had only strength to say, “save the children, for God’s sake, don’t let the children burn.” Such disinterested thoughtfulness in the midst of death agonies more merits a monument than all the deeds of Caesar.”

“TERRIBLE BURNING FLUID ACCIDENT. – HORRID DEATH. – At York, Pa., on Wednesday evening, the dress of a girl named Henrietta Mate, aged fifteen or sixteen years, took fire from the explosion of a fluid lamp, in the house of Annie Budd. She managed to get out of the house, on the pavement, when the air increased the flames, which illuminated the street causing an alarm of fire. The Pennsylvanian says:

‘”Mr. George Ropp and other gentlemen ran to rescue the suffering girl, who was being consumed rapidly. They tore the remaining clothing from her body, when a horrible, heart-sickening sight was presented. From her knees to her head her flesh was completely black, and full of blisters. Much of her head had been burned bare of hair, while her face and eyes were so blistered or swollen that she could not see, and her tongue protruded from her mouth.

‘”In leaving the house, she passed through four doors, brushing past a cradle in which slept a child, whose eye-brows, &c., were singed. In feeling for the front door, the girl’s fingers came in contact with the wall, and the finger marks were plainly discernible. On the pavement she sprang at a lady, the flames reaching far above her head, exclaiming, ‘My God! Help me.’ It is no exaggeration to say that some of the flesh on the poor victim’s body was roasted black. About half-past seven o’clock Thursday evening, thirty hours after the accident, she died.”

“- Miss Greenough. aged seventeen, was burned to death, at Burlington, Vt., on Sunday night, the 9th inst., her clothing taken fire from the explosion of a kerosene lamp. Miss Hattie Mills died, in Philadelphia, from a similar accident on the 10th inst.”

“Distressing Accident with Kerosene. We do not know when we have been called upon to chronicle a more heart-rendering and awful catastrophe than that which occurred in this county, about five miles from Rocky Mount on Saturday evening last, the 18th instant, at the residence of Mr. John Dillard. It should serve as a terrible warning against the criminal carelessness in the use of kerosene oil, as accidents of the same kind are constantly occurring throughout the country, and seem to be alarmingly on the increase.

‘In the room, at the time of the accident, were Mr. and Mrs. Dillard, the latter confined to her bed, and Mrs. W. Williford, sister to Mrs. Dillard, who was holding Mrs. Dillard’s little infant. While Mr. Dillard was engaged in filling the lamp while it was lighted the explosion took place, which knocked Mr. Dillard down and stunned him for a moment. At the same time the flames communicated to the dress of Mrs. Williford, who was sitting off about two feet, and who immediately ran to an adjoining room, laid the infant in its swaddling clothes on a table and commenced to extinguish her dress, which by this time was in a full blaze. Mr. Dillard, in the meantime, recovering from the stun he had received, went to the assistance of Mrs. Williford, and seeing the bundle of clothes on the table in a blaze, seized them and threw them out of the door, not knowing their precious contents. On being taken up the infant was found to be dead. But its death by the fall was no doubt sent in mercy, as its body was found to be burned in several places, which would in all probability have only prolonged its sufferings for a few hours.

‘Dr. R.C. Marriott was called in promptly to render medical assistance. He found Dr. Dillard painfully burned about the face and head, and Mrs. Williford most shockingly injured. Her hands, arms, face and breast are most severely burned, and the Doctor regards her situation as dangerous, although good nursing and management may save her life. Dr. Marriott thinks it probable, however, that she will never regain the use of her hands and one of her arms.”

“The wife of a keeper of a coffee stand in our Market was severely burned in the face and arms on Monday morning last, by the explosion of a camphene lamp.”

“FATAL CAMPHENE ACCIDENT. – On the 7th inst., in Moorestown, N.J., a young married lady, named Mrs. Stroud, wide of Dr. Stroud, and eldest daughter of Mr. John Fletcher, one of the proprietors of the Philadelphia Sun, was dreadfully burned, in consequence of the explosion of a camphene lamp which she was holding in her hand. She died on the 14th inst., after a week of intense suffering.”

“THE FIRE AT THE HARPERS’ ESTABLISHMENT. – The fire at Harpers’ establishment in New York, originated from the explosion of a camphine [sic] lamp. Sixteen buildings were destroyed, including twelve belonging to the Harpers, the Walton House, Franklin-square Hotel, and Coolidge’s Publishing House. The loss is estimated at three quarters of a million – one half of which is sustained by the Harpers. The entire amount, however, is believed to be fully covered by insurance. There were no lives lost.”

“A man and his wife residing in Albany-street was nearly burnt to death by the explosion of a camphine [sic] lamp. The man ran into the street enveloped in flames, and was fortunately saved by a boy playing with a Cochituate water pipe. The woman is not so badly burnt.”

“ A TERRIBLE FIRE – LOSS OF LIFE AND DESTRUCTION OF SIX STEAMERS. NEW ORLEANS, May 12. – An explosion of a kerosene lamp to-day resulted in the burning to the water’s edge the steamers Darling, Mary Ervin, Westmoreland, Meslasth, Cheyenne and Clinton. The loss by the destruction of the steamers and their cargoes amounts to $200,000.

‘Five deck hands on the steamer Cheyenne were burned to death and four or five jumped in the river from the Darling, but one of whom was saved. Passengers sleeping on the boats were also lost.

‘A full cargo of cotton had just been discharged from the Darling.”

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