As a Jack Tar retired from 31 years on ships,
I often heard the phrase "oil for the lamps of China". It was a stock reply to the question "What is/was
your cargo?"
Another stock answer is "mayonnaise for
the Sandwich Islands."
What is the origin of the phrase "oil for the lamps of China" ?
Cheers, David H
~~
As a Jack Tar retired from 31 years on ships, I often heard the phrase "oil for the lamps of ... "mayonnaise for the Sandwich Islands." What is the origin of the phrase "oil for the lamps of China" ? ~~

A best-selling novel and popular film of the 1930s
John Dean
Oxford
As a Jack Tar retired from 31 years on ships, ... the phrase "oil for the lamps of China" ? ~~

A best-selling novel and popular film of the 1930s

Before that it was a business slogan:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freebie marketing#Standard Oil

With a monopoly in the American domestic market, Standard Oil and its owner, John D. Rockefeller, looked to China to expand their business. Representatives of Standard Oil gave away eight million kerosene lamps for free or at greatly reduced prices.(3)

This also resulted in a slogan among American businessmen, "Oil for the lamps of China." In other words, if you give them the lamp, they'll buy the kerosene from you. Oil for the Lamps of China became the title of a book written by Alice Tisdale Hobart explaining the phenomenon in a fictionalized way.(3)
(3)From:
http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/8307/8307.ch02.php

Encountering Chinese Networks
Western, Japanese, and Chinese Corporations in China, 1880-1937 Sherman Cochran
Chapter 2
Standard Oil Company
..
Recruiting Chinese Commission Agents and Subagents ..
3rd para.
...The company's most widely disseminated sign read, in Chinese, "Burn Standard Oil's Old 'Eagle Brand' of Kerosene (its cheapest brand) and Use Its Candles and Lamps." In 1907 it introduced kerosene lamps with glass chimneys, and thereafter it exported to China two million per year. It touted the safety and efficiency of the lamp, which at one filling could produce bright and clean light for eleven hours and by burning one gallon of kerosene could give illumination for 240 hours.(note 77) Using this lamp as a promotional device, it sold each one for only a few cents and gave away many other premiums...

Peter Duncanson, UK
(in alt.english.usage)