Kerosene fires

I have several books of household hints that were published by kerosene companies (Polly Pennant’s Blue Book of Household Hints boldly claims in the introduction that Shell have developed a pleasant smelling kerosene), but none of them mention fires or fire extinguishers anywhere. Fortunately, other books have got that covered.

The New Modern Encyclopedia suggests putting kerosene fires out with flour, but apparently ammonia, sand, and salt are good too. Enquire Within Upon Everything suggests a solution of pearlash in water to extinguish fires. (Pearlash is a term for potassium carbonate, and it was used as a leavener before the introduction of baking soda). And Aunt Daisy’s New Book of Handy Hints includes these instructions for making a fire extinguisher:

1 gallon of water to 3 lb. salt and 1 1/2 lb sal ammoniac. Keep on handy shelf in large bottles. If cork sticks, tap neck of bottle to break it.

The Scientific American cyclopedia of formulas includes a whole section on formulas for fire extinguishing hand grenades. One of the recipes is essentially the same as Aunt Daisy’s recipe above, but put into tightly corked quart bottles made of thin glass. If a fire breaks out, rather than trying to spray the contents on the fire, you just throw the whole bottle into the fire and let it shatter, hopefully putting out the fire without showering you in broken glass and ammonia.

Vintage ad for the Star Grenade Fire Extinguisher, which doesn't make it sound very safe. Black and white drawing of three stoppered bottles that do look a bit like hand grenades. Text: "Always ready for instant Use. Safe, being Harmless to Health. Being of thinnest glass will break as easily as an egg, and therefore can be used by a child."
Russell Davies – flickr

Meanwhile, on the subject of benzene fires, Wikipedia tells us that The American Petroleum Institute (API) stated in 1948 that “it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero”. There is no safe exposure level; even tiny amounts can cause harm. Might be a good idea to skip the benzene fire altogether, then, even if you do have some milk or an extinguishing grenade handy.

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