Our pioneer, Ma-Ingalls-inspired project went well; that is, it went well until for one harrowing moment it didn’t. But more on that to come. Suffice it to say, I am filing this project under “it seemed a good idea at the time” in my teaching files.

Today we made an old-fashioned button lamp, enchanted as we are with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. (Will the train ever come)?? Last night we read about the Ingalls family running out of coal and kerosene and flour. Pa comes by some axle grease and a bushel of seed wheat, and the family makes do with their undying, undaunted will. They twist hay into sticks, and Ma contrives a way to have a bit of light at supper with her button lamp:

     …Ma told Carrie to bring her the rag bag. She took some of the axle grease from the box and spread it in an old saucer.Then she cut a small square of calico. ‘Now find me a button in the bag, Carrie’….She put the button in the center of the square of calico. She drew the cloth together over the button and wound a thread tightly around it and twisted the corners of the calico straight upward in a tapering bunch. Then she rubbed a little axle grease up the calico and set the button into the axle grease in the saucer…She lighted the taper tip of the button lamp. A tiny flame flickered and grew stronger. It burned steadily, melting the axle grease and drawing it up through the cloth into itself, keeping itself alight by burning. The little flame was like the flame of a candle in the dark.


These instructions sounded easy enough, so when Eric went down for his nap, Katie and I collected the necessary parts. I am certain that the button Carrie found was probably a metal button. Since I do not have one of those in my button bag, we used a coin instead. We also do not have axle grease, but we have plenty of Crisco. Finally, we chose a scrap from our rag bag and selected an old saucer (I just put out a bunch of old dishes into the garage a couple of months ago, as my mom gifted us with an entire Williams-Sonoma matching set). It turned out to be fortunate that we used an old saucer…

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Katie searches in our rag bag for a scrap of fabric

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Scooping out some grease

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Greasing the saucer

At this point, we put the coin in the center of our fabric, gathered the ends up as Laura describes, tied it with a thread….and greased the heck out of it.

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Our greased button lamp, all ready to go!

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Then we set it aflame.

All was well for about twenty-five minutes. We marveled at our creation. We talked about the dangers of fire, and how little boys and girls should never make one of these on their own without a parent. We observed the colors of the fire and discussed which part was hottest. We pondered whether or not Crisco burns for the same duration and with the same intensity as axle grease. We consulted our globe and I showed Katie where the Ingalls family was during the hard winter. For the first time, it really made an impression on her that these were real people, that we were making something Ma had really once made. It was a great teaching experience. It was almost meditative.

Then, without warning, the sauce cracked completely in thirds! The burning button lamp fell onto our wooden table and continued burning. A small spot of our table started burning, so much so that there is now a permanent circular ridge where the button lamp sat burning. Fortunately, I had a jar of water nearby for just such an emergency, and it was quickly and efficiently extinguished. A little scary, though…

If I ever get the idea (and these are the kinds of wild ideas that are born in my head late, late at night when I am falling asleep thinking of lessons) to re-do this project for Eric, I definitely won’t be doing it in a saucer on our wooden table. I am not sure why Ma’s saucer held up so well, but I am going to err on the side of making our next button lamp in a metal pan of some kind…and on concrete outside, or something. I wouldn’t recommend making this button lamp without taking more care toward fire safety!

As Ma often says, though, “All’s well that ends well!”

After we cleared away the button lamp project, we settled down into a quieter activity:

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Katie has been practicing her sewing for quite some time, but today she was asking for her own hoop and real piece of cross stitch fabric to learn how to do actual cross stitching on her own. I actually still have the little blue hoop on which I learned to cross stitch, and I had a small piece of Aida cloth to put in the hoop. We worked at it mostly together, and she started getting the idea… But it does take practice! She is just working on making rows right now, and I put her little hoop right on top of my big frame project to store it on our shelf. It is cozy to have our projects sitting and waiting together!

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