Dentist’s Alcohol Lamp

My father, Jacob Lincoln Kaufman, opened his dental practice in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1930s.  During that time, and in the years to come, many European artists, writers and film makers fleeing the Nazis settled in LA and worked in Hollywood. One brought another and then another to my dad’s office and soon his practice was filled with interesting émigrés from Austria, Germany, Hungary, such as the  actor Peter Lorre and Fritz Lang, the brilliant director. They all adored their dentist, a great joke teller, who often left them laughing, and called him “Kaufie”.  They often brought him gifts, mostly Viennese pastry and chocolates.

My dad had a great ear and a gift for mimicry and at dinner he would regale us with the language he’d heard in his chair that day, speaking with a perfect Berlinese, Viennese  or Hungarian accent. One day he told us that one of his  patients, an elderly German woman, told him that she believed in reincarnation and that she had been an Egyptian princess in her past life. My father replied her that he must have been a dentist in his, because his feet still hurt.

In the 1950s,  his evening routine was the same. After dinner, at 6:00 sharp (no “Madmen” style cocktail hour , he rarely drank), he would nap on the couch, asking me to remove his shiny black oxfords or loosen the laces. Then he would get up, put on his blue striped twill apron and go into a small closet he had fitted with a workbench and a stereo speaker. There he would work late into the night carving waxes for crowns and bridges. while listening to classical music on the radio. He would heat his tools in the flame of an alcohol lamp to melt and drip and add to the wax,  or to smooth it. He would cast the wax into gold in his office the next day.

When he died, at age ninety, in 2002, I found this extra lamp among his tools. Like new, although quite old, it is stainless steel. It says “CLEV-DENT” on it, a dental equipment company that no longer exists. Hard to tell how old it is – could be anywhere from 30’s to 50’s. There is a wick in the lamp, it only requires denatured alcohol to burn. Replacement wicks are easy to find.

Perhaps it could be used out doors, as there is a shield around the flame. Or to make wax sculpture , or for something I haven’t thought of , but you will.

— mailed from California

Exchange Story

Stainless steel, I recognize, is a look I find particularly alluring. It glitters to me from a future I wish had come to pass, a past future I still wish were still possible – a future of optimism so unbroken you could slide right off of it, and sleek technological functionalism, and also the possibility of considering your reflection, your likeness, as you were speeding along. Fritz Lang understood the pleasures and perils of that future, a future in which the dead could seemingly return in mechanical mimesis of life and fleshly human beings were cogs in an out-of-control machine. “Metropolis” ends with a reconciliation of the “workers” and the “thinkers,” and of the humans and the machines – solidarity devoutly to be wished now, ready to be made.

We are all reflected in the surfaces of our tools. Teeth, of course, are tools too. This lamp is a tool used to replace a tool our body furnishes for us with a mechanical likeness, a lump of metal replacing a lump of minerals. Women and men of steel, we are not. The word steel, incidentally, apparently has no corresponding synonym outside its original Germanic root, which means to stand, place, be firm.” The European refugees fleeing a continent where roots, steel and the deliberate elision of people into things were increasingly and lethally central to existence must have reveled in their kind and jovial dentist, a man seemingly in full possession of the implements of his humanity – not only the tools of his trade (a dentist is a man of tools, a “Kaufmann” indeed), but also the instruments with which to navigate what Dickens named “the comprehensive ocean” of our messy, contingent, oft-funny and often tragic human affairs.

All this prologue is to say that my initial engagement with this lamp is a visceral one immediately transposed to the intellectual. Donald Norman writes about good design uniting these two aspects of an object, the visceral and the intellectual or aesthetic, with a third, function; this lamp is beautiful to me in all three. It shines. Of course a lamp should shine (that’s what the word “lamp” means at bottom, after all, another root – to shine). A lamp of steel – a light that will not shift its place. “The light shines in the darkness,” writes the Christian Evangelist John in the first chapter of his Gospel, “and the darkness has not overcome it”. The persistent light, the light that will not go out, is common to most faiths, and few of us can avoid in the sinews of their being the imperative of Dylan Thomas, to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

This lamp and lamps like it were not simply for learning in the bookish sense through reading and writing, but learning through material making (applicants to dental school today, often to their chagrin and dismay, must practice carving lumps of soap and other substances into particular specified shapes in preparation for a similar assignment in the entrance tests). Perhaps one of the goals of this broader project is to examine the translation of object to story to story to object. So what will I do with this lamp, manufactured from Ohio steel sometime in the middle of the last century, then residing in California (a land of magic lanterns if there ever was one) with Dr. Jacob Kaufman through his long life, and now offered up to (human) science? Muse on it, as I suppose I’ve already begun to do; use it to light summer nights and the occasional winter evenings; cradle it in my cupped fingers, the light in my reflection.



  1. Anna Belle Kaufman says:

    I could not have imagined a more responsive, engaging and satisfying story for which to trade my father’s lamp. I send my deepest appreciation for this story. Thank you.

    And thank you to OEP. To be able to reach through the unimaginable vastness of the internet and make compelling connections to others through our objects and our stories is thrilling.

  2. Luke Stark says:

    You’re very welcome, Anna; thank you for contributing such a fascinating object (and window into your family history). It’s a privilege to now be a small part of it.

    And yes, big kudos to Max and the OEP!

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