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Mei Foo Lamps: Standard Oil’s Old Technology and New Frontier

At the top of the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, an exhibition designated “New Frontiers” showcases digital art and design works that are “technology-forward” and “innovative.”[1] The exhibition borrows its title from the Rockefeller Center’s inaugural arts program of the same name, led by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the co-founder of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) (Schneider, “New Frontiers”). More than half a century ago, at the same building, Socony-Vacuum, one of the legacies of John D. Rockefeller’s oil empire, held an exhibit titled “Old and Older Lamps” (fig. 1). The exhibit, according to a Socony-Vacuum news article, presented a collection of what they categorized as “primitive” lamps including a brass whale oil lamp, a Greek pottery lamp, and a porcelain lamp from China.[2] The star of the collection was the Mei Foo lamp produced by Standard Oil Company of New York (Socony) specifically for the Chinese market. At the turn of the twentieth century, China was the “new frontier” to Standard Oil, and the Mei Foo lamp offered an “object lesson,” as described in Socony-Vacuum News of December 1936, for the company’s expansion in the East.

Page with lamp images on it
Fig. 1. Mei Foo Lamps in exhibition

As Sheena Wilson, Imre Szeman, and Adam Carlson point out, the modern discovery of oil played a crucial role in enabling the technological innovation that we now associate with the development of modernity.[3] Michael Rubenstein and Justin Neuman echo this standpoint and state that the modernists of the twentieth century believed in the ability of technology to deliver success in energy innovation from one generation to the next. As they argue, however, citing Hal Foster, the exuberantly optimistic view fetishizes technology and treats it apart from the mode of production and turns it into an object of art.[4] Throughout the history of Mei Foo, from the early twentieth century to the present day, the lamp has been a materialization of the ideas of progress, efficiency, and standardization. These ideas are meant to inspire us as consumers of oil products to envision a world where problems can be solved by technological innovation. To Standard Oil, I believe, these ideas are seen as nothing more than a business strategy that is rooted in a legacy of colonialism, extraction, and monopoly. Unlike its competitors such as Royal Dutch Company who rely on imports, Standard Oil’s success in China was attributed to established local distribution and manufacturing agents and an attempted mining effort in Shaanxi by the 1920s. The business network was knit together through the setting of predatory prices for the Mei Foo lamp.[5] Yongle Xue specifies that Mei Foo became a household name even to the point that the phrase “meifu deng” (Mei Foo lamp) became the equivalent of “kerosene lamp.”[6]

The Mei Foo lamp and kerosene oil were innovative and technology-forward objects in China. In 1893, Standard Oil Company of New York established its business in late Qing Imperial China. As the business grew, Socony's sister companies began to spread their influence to the land of potential large consumers. In 1913, Standard Oil Company of California issued its November bulletin “Light for the Orient,” (fig. 2) which appeared on the cover of the Standard Oil Bulletin, with a mission to “extend aid to millions of people in the very best way that aid can be given: it made it possible for those people to help themselves by increasing their own efficiency.” [7] At the time, the vast majority of Chinese were lighting their homes with a smoky contraption that burned vegetable oil. People were accustomed to using vegetable oils, and kerosene was new and considered dangerous, with no suitable receptacles in which to burn it. “They were too poor to afford a kerosene lamp.”[8] To overcome this obstacle Socony (Shanghai) introduced the “Mei Foo” lamp in 1906. The company shipped thousands of lamps to China, which were sold at only a fraction of their original cost.[9]

Standard Oil Magazine cover with men carrying boxes off of a boat
Fig. 2. Standard Oil Bulletin cover with men carrying boxes off of a boat

Socony-Vacuum described the Mei Foo lamp as a good little lamp that burned kerosene efficiently, did not smoke, and provided a bright light, especially compared to the lamps that China had known (fig. 3 shows an advertisement of the Mei Foo Lamp in Chinese). The first character of Mei 美 means beautiful or good, and geographically it was also associated with the Chinese designation for the United States of America. Since Socony was the largest American oil company operating in China at the time, the Mei connotation had considerable meaning to the Chinese (fig. 4 shows an advertisement boat with the Chinese characters of 美孚 on the sail.) The second character, Foo 孚, means trustworthy.[10] At the time, to be without a Mei Foo lamp, a family had no "face," (prestige/reputation) and having a larger lamp gave a family more "face" than having a smaller lamp (“Mei Foo Lamps”).

Page with chinese and english text
Fig. 3. Mei Foo Lamps Print Advertisement
Black and white photo of a boat with a sail
Fig. 4. Mei Foo Lamps advertisement appearing on a boat

Kerosene sales skyrocketed. To meet demand, a fleet of clippers, including the “Brilliant” sailed from Southern California holds chock-a-block with loaded five-gallon kerosene tins (fig. 5). Then bulk facilities were established in China so that handling costs could be kept to a minimum. Tankers followed, including a fleet of river steamers to handle the incredible growth of requirements throughout the “Celestial Republic.” Socony went into the glass business, opening its own Shanghai factory in 1922 to produce chimneys for Mei Foo lamps (fig. 6) (“Mei Foo Lamps”).

Drawings of ships carrying Mei Foo lamps with accompanying text
Fig. 5. Drawings of ships carrying Mei Foo lamps
images and text on page; a factory building and men blowing glass
Fig. 6. Mei Foo Lamps factory

Jim Avent, a Standard Oil executive, writes in his memoir, “The introduction of the lamp was a minor revolution—a new era. Kerosene was now in great demand. Kerosene made it possible to have light and thus made it possible for the Chinese to eat their vegetable oil. In other words, kerosene made food for the belly” (“Mei Foo Lamps”). This narrative is certainly fueled by the business triumph of the lamp and what it represents. Mei Foo was so successful that it became synonymous with Socony among the Chinese people. In 1924, Socony (Shanghai) launched its corporate magazine, “Mei Foo Shield” (fig. 7), and a melodrama titled “Oil for the Lamps of China” (fig. 8) was produced by First National Pictures (later absorbed by Warner Brothers) in 1935. Today, Mobil Oil continues to use “Mei Foo” as its corporate Chinese name for its lubricating oil products.[11]  On its website, Mobil promises to “add wings to productivity” and “head to a life of joy and prosperity.”[12] The “object lesson” offered to the executives of Standard Oil and its legacies, from lubricating oil to Mei Foo lamps, the pursuit of progress, productivity, and prosperity, need to be decoded as a rapacious endeavor in building a culture of fossil fuels around oil products.

Lions and a shield on a magazine cover
Fig. 7. Mei Foo Shield magazine cover, November 1924
Stylized film poster with man, woman, oil barrel, and crowd
Fig. 8. Oil for the Lamps of China film poster


[1] In Julie Smith Schneider, “New Frontiers,” the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller-Inspired Exhibition at Top of the Rock. rockefellercenter.com/magazine/arts-culture/new-frontiers-at-top-of-the-rock/

[2] Mei Foo Lamps, undated. Box: 2.207/G221. Exxon Mobil Historical Collection. Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. University of Texas, Austin.

[3] Sheena Wilson, Imre Szeman, and Adam Carlson, Petrocultures: Oil, Politics, Culture, ed. Sheena Wilson, Adam Carlson, and Imre Szeman (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017), 5.

[4] Michael Rubinstein and Justin Neuman, Modernism and Its Environments (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), 27, 37

[5] Lingjun Wu, Mei fu shi you gong si zai Zhongguo, 1870-1933. (Standard Oil Company in China) (Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe, 2017), 26–27

[6] Yongle Xue, Oil for the Engines of China: The Standard Oil Company and the Early Mechanization of China, 1927-1953, 18. Undergraduate Thesis, Georgetown University. hdl.handle.net/10822/709165

[7] Standard Oil Bulletin. November 1913. Volume 1, No. 7. Accessed through HathiTrust. 

[8] Mei Foo Lamps, undated. Box: 2.207/G221. Exxon Mobil Historical Collection. Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. University of Texas, Austin.

[9] Mei Foo Lamps Are Still Shining. The New York Times. March 15th, 1959.

[10] Mei Foo Lamps, undated. Box: 2.207/G221. Exxon Mobil Historical Collection. Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. University of Texas, Austin.

[11] Mei Foo, 1907–1973. Box: 2.207/E159. Exxon Mobil Historical Collection. Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. University of Texas, Austin.