This article describes the history of the oil lamp, noting its evolution from Betty lamps to the Argand burner to a lamp with an oil reservoir in the base. It originally appeared in the September 1941 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
Among old-time lamps there are certain types that mark changes in the manner of living or that are representative of classes or occupations. Others are examples of the progressive development of light sources adapted to the different fuels burned as illuminants as they came into use.
There is but little basic difference between the Betty lamps so widely used in the American Colonies and the lamps of the ancient world. In general, these lamps are characterized by a relatively shallow container for the oil with a wick lip or spout at one end. While vegetable oil was used in the ancient lamps, fish oil or animal grease was commonly burned in the Betty lamps. This produced a yellowish flickering light and a disagreeable smoke and odor.
The early whale-oil lamps represent the beginning of an era of better lighting for people of modest means, hitherto dependent largely upon Betty lamps and homemade candles. These whale-oil lamps were most often low and of metal, with a single wick tube protruding from the top of the font, though sometimes there were two tubes.
An important improvement was made by Benjamin Franklin, about 1740, when he discovered that if the two tubes of a double burner whale-oil lamp were placed so that there was a space between them about equal to the width of one tube, three times as much light would be obtained as from a single tube.
This spacing is characteristic of the Franklin burner. Upon examination, it will be found that some double-burner whale-oil lamps show this spacing, while others do not. Only the former should be classed as Franklin burners.
The reason for the superiority of the Franklin burner is that this spacing of the wick tubes caused a better draft to be produced by the upward movement of the heated air from the flames. This supplied more oxygen for better combustion and better light. Franklin tried three tubes without success, because the third tube interfered with the draft.
Taller whale-oil lamps began to be made as a result of this invention, which enabled whale oil to produce sufficient illumination to justify its use in the more important lamps of the table type. The first of these were made of tin and are known as pedestal lamps. Similar ones were shortly made also of pewter and of brass. This type persisted a long time. A tin whale-oil lamp, dating from 1836, which was used by Abraham Lincoln in his law office in Springfield, Illinois, is a pedestal lamp with a Franklin burner.
The introduction of a burner consisting of two wick tubes soldered to a metal screw cap, for use with a glass luminant container, was the signal for extensive production of glass whale-oil lamps on the part of American glassworks at Sandwich and elsewhere. Today, these are collectible antiques, though their value depends on the design and quality of workmanship.
Some of the more costly lamps had a font of blown glass fused to a foot or base of pressed glass; others had a bulbous third part of blown glass fused between the font and the foot. In addition, many inexpensive whale-oil lamps were made of pressed glass and in a wide variety of designs.
Whale oil was in general use as an important illuminant for a century and a half; that is, from about 1690, when the first rigors of settlement in a new land were beginning to be lessened, to 1840 when ships of a well-established Western Republic were an important part of ocean traffic. This oil was plentiful and relatively inexpensive. Therefore, it was widely used by those of moderate means. However, those who could afford more costly lamps with highly developed burners, such as those of the Argand type, were using lard oil or refined sperm oil, known as astral oil, which produced a strong clear light. Sperm oil became available after the capture of the first sperm whale by Nantucket fishermen about 1772. The lamps burning lard oil or astral oil were often of large size and very handsome.
The distinguishing feature of the Argand burner is its central draft, air being admitted at the bottom and passing up through the tubular wick. This furnished an ample supply of oxygen. The shape of the flame made a concentrated light source. As a burner of this type could be mounted at the end of a horizontal tubular arm conveying the oil from the font, the light could be brought more directly over the work.
There were many types of lamps burning lard oil, incorporating different devices for overcoming the chief fault of this illumination: its tendency not to flow freely. One of the most interesting lard-oil lamps was the canting font or English student lamp, which had a font that tilted so that the wick might be kept immersed in the oil. The pair of lamps used by Noah Webster while compiling his dictionary were of this type. They were of tin with corrugated metal reflectors.
While the early colonists were burning smoky Betty lamps or homemade tallow candles, much more highly developed lamps were already in use; for example, the horological lamp of pewter and glass that was widely made in Europe. The date of this lamp is fixed by the fact that a similar lamp is shown in a Dutch print dated 1610. It probably belonged to a scholar, for its glass font is graduated with Roman numerals from VIII to II to mark the passing of time as the oil burned.
Camphene, known also as Poter’s fluid or burning fluid, was introduced in 1837. It became very popular despite its explosive nature and largely displaced whale oil. Camphene lamps are distinguished by the long, tapering wick tubes with thimble-like caps to prevent the camphene from evaporating when the lamp was not in use. The wick tubes of a two-tube camphene burner slant away from each other, forming a V. Camphene was made from oil of turpentine by distilling it over quick lime to purify it.
A little over twenty years later, or in 1859, kerosene was discovered in Pennsylvania by Colonel Drake. This soon displaced camphene and became the principal illuminant during the rest of the Victorian era. The lamps that resulted are of interest to collectors today mainly for the beauty of their bases, oil containers, and shades. However, they marked a major step forward in artificial lighting. The important features were the use of a glass chimney, aeration of the flame by means of an improved wick, and better fuel. Oddly enough, the first two had been invented centuries before and petroleum, from which kerosene and other essential latter-day products are distilled, was known to the world of ancient Nineveh and Babylon.
Anyone who happened to visit the exhibit of inventions and drawings by Leonardo da Vinci on display last winter at Rockefeller Center, New York, will not be surprised to learn that it was this versatile 15th-Century genius who discovered the value of an upward draft and contrived a metal chimney above the flame.
But a da Vinci or an Edison do not happen very often and some two hundred years went by before it occurred to anyone to substitute a glass chimney. The idea of putting it around the flame instead of over, however, took about a hundred years more and was largely hit upon by accident.
It was in 1784, when Argand was experimenting with his circular, tubular wick. When the current of air through the inner tube failed to give the brilliance to the circular flame he had expected, he placed the broken neck of a bottle over the flame and got the desired result.
Valuable as these discoveries were though, the Argand lamp with its principle of gravity feed, thus having the reservoir at a higher level, was both unhandy and expensive. So the common people continued to use the old open-flame type that harked tack in principle to the days of the ten wise and ten foolish virgins. The need, of course, was for a better and cheaper fuel.
To this, kerosene or paraffin was the answer. It revolutionized both lamp and candle lighting. Its value as a luminant had been discovered in Europe in 1830. By 1848 it was being produced from mineral oil in Derbyshire, England. Six years later the first factory for the manufacture of “coal oil” was established in the United States.
But what really put the kerosene-oil lamp within reach of the common people, and started an industry that was to revolutionize more than artificial lighting, was the discovery of the oil wells in Pennsylvania, already referred to. The derisive and pitying attitude of Colonel Drake’s friends and neighbors, when he began boring for oil on Oil Creek, Vanango County, and the excitement on that August day in 1859 when he “struck oil,” at seventy-one feet and got some four hundred gallons a day, are told in histories and contemporary accounts.
The refining and cheapening of this new fuel gave impetus to a flood of patents during the 1860’s. Most of these came to nothing. But the net result was a perfect oil lamp with reservoir in the base of it, the fuel being fed to a circular or flat wick by capillary attraction, and a draught-producing glass chimney to insure a clear, steady light. It was to the 19th Century what indirect electric lighting is to the 20th. The improvements that followed, from the introduction of the duplex burner in 1865 by the English inventor, Hinks, on, are too near our own day to be discussed in detail.
In fact, the irony of this tardy application of principles known to scientists for centuries is aptly pointed out by F. W. Robins in his The Story of the Lamp, published two years ago. He states:
“Thousands of years of oil lighting had passed and the ‘perfect’ oil lamp had only been evolved when its obsequies were already being prepared in all parts where the benefits (or otherwise) of up-to-date civilization were available. Gas lighting had been in being for more than half a century and, if difficulties of distribution confined it to urban areas, no town or large village in Britain was without its Gas Works by the time the paraffin lamp became generally available; by that time, also, experiments with electric lighting were already in progress, soon to achieve practical results and ultimately to facilitate the carrying of an entirely different form of lighting into the most remote areas.”
But satisfactory and universal as was the kerosene lamp of the second half of the 19th Century, it was not without an element of danger. Johnson’s Universal Illustrated Cyclopedia, compiled in 1876, devotes some twelve pages to the subject of petroleum and under the heading, “Why most of the Kerosene in the Market is unsafe,” states: “Crude naptha sells at from 2 to 5 cents per gallon, while the refined petroleum or kerosene sells for 20 to 25 cents. As great competition exists among the refiners, there is a strong inducement to turn the heavier portions of the naptha into the kerosene-tank, so as to get for it the price of kerosene.”
This matter-of-fact reference to human cupidity causes one to look with gratitude to the late John D. Rockefeller, who conceived and organized the Standard Oil Company and so achieved stability in oil production, refining, distribution, and pricing. Further, Pratt’s astral oil was about the first of the less-dangerous forms of kerosene to be sold extensively.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.