An oil lamp is any vessel that holds oil and an absorbent wick and produces continuous heat or light when lit. The most basic oil-lamp form—a shallow dish filled with oil or grease and a partially submerged wick or rag—was used from biblical times to the Victorian era. Do-it-yourself "slut lamps" could be made by dipping a rag in fat or lard, stuffing it into a bottle mouth, and lighting it. The term "slut lamp" eventually became synonymous with lamps using grease as fuel.

Dish oil lamps, usually made of pewter or iron, were popular with American colonists, even though they only gave off weak, flickering light and produced clouds of smoke. In that way, these oil lamps were similar to the other widespread light source, candles—both oil and wax were eventually employed in hanging chandeliers and wall sconces.

The simplest colonial oil lamps were iron saucers with one or two lips to hold the free-floating wick. These classic lamps were similar to ones used by ancient Greeks, Romans, and Assyrians. Oil lamps with more than two lips for wicks were called "crusies," "chills," or "cressets." A favorite lamp shape was a pan with one channel on the side to receive the wick and a handle on the opposite side. The handle was often linked by an iron chain to an iron boat-hook-shaped spike, used for securing the lamp on a shelf or mantel.

In colonial times, two design innovations were particularly well-received. The first was the "phoebe lamp," which contained a small one-channel lamp set within a larger one-channel lamp, so that the drippings from the smaller lamp would not fall to the floor. Even more popular was the "betty lamp," which featured a hinged lid and a thin metal channel of iron that fed the wick directly to the bottom of the pan. Betty lamps also had a curved handle and mantel hook, as well as a pick to loosen the wick when it got stuck. Some betty lamps were even mounted on adjustable stands.

A popular spin on the betty lamp—the Ipswich Betty, which was a tin betty lamp attached to a saucer-shaped base—was made in the town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, until 1850. Other famous betty lamps were made by Peter Derr in the early 19th century—his dated and initialed lamps are highly prized by collectors.

In the late 18th century, Swiss chemist Aime Argand figured out how to make an oil lamp without a free floating wick. His world-changing invention featured a burner that contained the flame and held a cylindrical wick, as well as a rudimentary glass chimney.

Argand’s innovation spurred the creation of all sorts of new oil lamps. Some used viscous rapeseed oil, sometimes referred to as colza or canola oil, which had to be fed to the w...

Whale-oil lamps were even more popular, in no small part because they smelled less and smoked less than lamps that burned rapeseed oil. The earliest whale-oil lamps were made of pewter and featured a couple of metal tubes holding circular wicks, whose flames flickered at the lamp’s top end like candles. Some were designed to be hung or carried by U-shaped handles.

Such pewter whale-oil lamps are usually hard to identify because most makers didn't mark them. Occasionally, some marked by Roswell Gleason, Eben Smith, or Caper Molineux can be found. The Brook Farm commune, as well as Israel Trask, Boardman, or Calder, also put out many pewter lamps in the 19th century. The designs of these metal lamps—sometimes made of tin and brass, too—was usually more functional than beautiful.

Around 1830, glass manufacturers like the esteemed Sandwich Glass Company, began to produce blown and pressed glass whale oil lamps that were shaped like delicate vases, with a lightbulb-like space containing the flame. These were often beautifully designed, and came in a range of gem-like colors, including topaz, sapphire, amethyst, and opal. Today, these lamps are often found lacking their original burners because in the 1860s many of them were refitted for kerosene.

The inexpensive process of extracting kerosene (known as "coal oil" or "paraffin") from petroleum was perfected by Canadian scientist Abraham Gesner in 1849. That discovery, as well as an abundance of oil found in Pennsylvania, sparked a revolution in lighting technology.

Michael Dietz led the charge when he brought his clean-burning kerosene lamp to the market in 1857. Kerosene changed the lamp industry almost overnight, and almost certainly spared a few whale species from extinction. Unlike animal fat, kerosene did not stink or rot, making it a wildly popular fuel source.

The first kerosene lamps, called "wick lamps," fed the wick through a top burner attached to the fuel tank beneath. A glass chimney, which helped direct and feed air to the flame, was then placed on top of the burner, which usually had a device to adjust the wick, thereby controlling the intensity of the flame. The earliest wick lamps, called "dead-flame" lamps, gave off a low amount of light, as the flame was fed from air drawn in from below.

Kerosene lamps got brighter as the century progressed, thanks to Dietz Lantern's 1860s "hot blast" innovation, a lamp design that circulated a mix of fresh and heated hair to the flame through side tubes. That was followed by "cold blast" designs in 1880, which brought even more fresh air to the flame.

Finally, early in the 20th century, Aladdin Industries introduced the "mantle lamp," in which the burner would heat a "mantle," or a piece of cloth that had been soaked in a variety of metal oxides. These new kerosene lamps burned the brightest of all, gave off no smoke or odor, and did not flicker.

As these new technologies developed at the end of the Victorian era, the public became more and more obsessed with artificial illumination and the freedom it offered. Manufacturers, particularly glass companies, responded by trying to outdo one another, coming out with more and more opulent and artistic lamp shade and chimney designs, insisting that consumers needed to light every corner of their homes. Glass companies like Fostoria or Consolidated would sell their shades to manufacturers like Holmes, Booth and Haydens, which made the lamp’s mechanical parts.

Thanks to this competition, kerosene lamps of the Victorian era come in a tremendous variety of shapes and styles. The most humble and functional lamp chimneys were made of plain opal milk glass—eventually these were produced in factories rather than being hand-blown. The most expensive lamp shades were elaborate and often stunning works of art glass, made in satin glass, amberina, cranberry, and mother of pearl, among other colors. They could be cut or engraved with elegant patterns, like the best glassware, or they could be hand-painted with artistic images of flowers, landscapes, or portraits. They might even be adorned with crystal tassels.

Two popular forms of kerosene lamp class are case glass (two layers of glass with white inside to reflect more light and a color like green outside), and slag glass (a kind of opaque, streaked pressed glass). In the 1880s, lamps with a giant, showy globe-shaped shade, known today as “Gone With the Wind” lamps, were hugely popular. Around that time, manufacturers started to experiment with making these lamps in even more convoluted shapes and out of materials like mica, horn, and porcelain.

However, the glory days of oil lamps were numbered. As the new century dawned, innovations in gas lighting and electricity would lead to even better sources of light, and kerosene lamps would be all but abandoned by the middle of the 20th century.

Collectors should look for lamps made by U.S. companies such as Bryce, McKee and Company, which specialized in table lamps; Mount Washington Glass Works, which made chandeliers and globe-shaped shades; and a number of Pittsburgh shade and chimney companies, including Excelsior Flint Glass Company, Keystone Flint Glass Manufacturing Company, Adams and Company, and Atterbury and Company.

Antique paraffin lamps from Europe are also highly desirable, including those from England's F. and C. Osler, esteemed for its art-glass lamps and chandeliers, which were shown at the 1878 Paris Exhibition. Lissuate and Cosson's Glass Works of Paris were known for their black-glass lamp bases adorned with colored and pearl glass. Meanwhile, Dresden potteries exported porcelain lamps featuring florid designs with fat baby cupids in high relief.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

The Lampworks

The Lampworks

Lamp collector and dealer Dan Edminster has put together an incredible reference site on antique lamps and related … [read review or visit site]

Texans Incorporated: The History of a Lamp Company

Texans Incorporated: The History of a Lamp Company

Mark Stevens has created an impressive living memorial to Texans Inc., a 20th century Texas manufacturer of ceramic… [read review or visit site]

The Lamps of H. G. McFaddin

The Lamps of H. G. McFaddin

Bruce Bleier's tribute to the Emeralite and Bellova lampshades made from Czech glass and popularized and distribute… [read review or visit site]

Fairy Lamp Club

Fairy Lamp Club

This incredible site is a stunning showcase for Victorian and contemporary fairy lamps, a style of lamp with a glas… [read review or visit site]

Gas Pressure Lanterns, Lamps and Stoves

Gas Pressure Lanterns, Lamps and Stoves

Terry Marsh’s beautiful showcase of gas-pressure lanterns, lamps, stoves, irons, and heaters from the 1920s o… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique, Heart & Diamond, Eapg Vaseline Glass Oil Lamp, Perfect! No Reserve!C1890 Antique Brass Marbl Glass Cranberry Overlay Oil Lamp Light Boston SandwichExcellent Victorian Cranberry Grey Etched Oil Lamp Shade 2.75" Base DiameterAntique Victorian Youngs Duplex Corinthian Column Table Oil Lamp & Glass ShadeAntique Victorian Ripley Glass Double Burner Wedding Marriage Kerosene Oil LampAntique Victorian Gwtw Banquet 18" Kerosene Oil Lamp Hand Painted P&a BurnerAntique 1880 B&h Metal/enamel Oil Lamp 6128 W/ Glass Wind Shade + Filigree BaseAntique Cranberry Opalescent Coin Dot Keroscene Oil Lamp Hobbs? Fenton? SandwichPair Huge C1880s Oil Lamps Adams Eapg Blue Thousand Eye Foot Amber Lattice FontAntique Dietz Crystal Glass Font Barn Lantern Oil LampAntique Hinks No.2 Duplex Brass Rise & Fall Oil Lamp BurnerBeautiful Antique 19thc Amber Glass Etched Tulip Oil Lamp Shade VgcPair Antique Victorian Eapg Opaque Glass Gwtw Banquet Parlor Kerosene Oil LampsJames Hinks & Son C1880 Patent Duplex Kerosene Paraffin Oil Lamp Pink Opal FountAntique Ribbed & Acid Etched Oil Lamp Shade, Melon Shape, Flowers & PaisleyVintage Aladdin Rose Pink Moonstone Corinthian Kerosene Oil Lamp Base & BurnerPair Antique Victorian Cranberry Art Glass Brass Candlestick Piano Peg Oil LampsVintage Aladdin Corinthian Oil Lamp Jadite Glass Model B BurnerAntique Circa 1890 Lion & Baboon Crystal Glass Eapg Kerosene Oil Lamp BaseAntique Vintage Etched Glass Egg Shaped Shade For Banquet Oil Lamp /parlor LightOriginal Antique Oil Lamp Glass Shade W/ Colorful Roses 10" Fitter N/r19th Antique Victorian Parlor/wind/oil/globe Ball Kerosene Juno Banquet Lamp Rare Crown Miners Oil Wick Lamp Teapot With ReflectorAntique Vintage French Original Vintners Pigeon Oil Lamp Wall Hanging Table Top Antique Aladdin Rose Pink Glass Oil Kerosene Lamp W/chimney & Tripod For ShadeAntique Signd Handel Glass Hurricane Oil Or Electric Lamp Shade Nice Condition!Antique Sandwich Boston Whale Oil/kereosene Cobalt Cut To Clear Lamp ,c.1860,sAntique Victorian Oil Converted To Electric Table Lamp W/ Cranberry Optic Shade1880's Fancy Brass Marble Stem Kerosene Oil Banquet Parlor LampExcel. Cond. Manhattan Student Oil Lamp, 1870's, Original Nickel Finish, Antique Binks Guardian Angel L'ange Gardien Ruby Shade Miniature Finger Oil LampVictorian Cased Glass Miniature Kerosene Oil Lamp Teal Blue Gold Swirl DesignVintage Aladdin Model B Oil Kerosene Lamp Jade Green Chicago Nu-type With GlobeWhite Glass Gwtw Miniature Oil Lamp Trimed In Mauve Fired On Color Usa MadeThe Improved Hitchcock Lamp Anitque Pat 1895 Gas Kerosene Oil W Key Mechanical1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition Chicago Victorian Oil Lamp With Original ShadeAntique C1840-70 Victorian Oil Kerosene Flint Glass Lamp * Amaziing Dark GreenAntique Victorian Gwtw Banquet Parlor Oil Lamp Font Bottom Ruby Red Satin GlassAntique Brass Jeweled Hanging Library Oil Lamp Frame Parts Or RestorationVictorian Miniature 2 1/4" High Blue Quilted Overlay Glass Oil Lamp Shade.Tall Pair Antique 1800s Bohemian Cut Glass Brass Candlestick Peg Oil Lamps 30"Vintage Antique 1905 Brass Banquet Oil / Kerosene Parlor Lamp Slip Tank Or FontAladdin Oil Lamp~~~rose Moonstone~~cathedral 1934 & 1935~~model B BurnerChristopher Dresser Portable Oil Lamp Circa 18801880's White Opalescent Coin Spot Kerosene Oil Stem Lamp Hobbs BrockunierVintage Wilcox Crittenden Marine Compass With National Lamp Company Oil LampOpaque Blue Bullseye Kerosene Oil LampVintage Clear Aladdin Washington Drape Kerosene Oil LampVtg Aladdin Rose Pink Foot Moonstone Corinthian Kerosene Oil Lamp Base & Burner19th Century Aladdin Nu-type Model B Brass Oil Lamp With Green Cased Glass ShadeLarge Powder Blue Swirl Antique Glass Oil Lamp Shade Hanging Cased Replacement Antique Bradley & Hubbard Sconce Oil Lamp With ReflectorAladdin Oil Lamp B-115 Corinthian Green MoonstoneVintage French Oil Lamp From Brittany, FranceAntique Aladdin Kerosene Oil Lamp Hobnail Or Colonial Clear Font 1930's Antique Ornate Iron Banquet Type Oil Lamp B-16Mid Century Rain Oil Lamp Girl & Boy On Swing--rare!Antique Kosmos Brenner Hp Old Paris Porcelain Oil Lamp-putti/cherub-continentalAntique Hanging Oil LampAntique Blown Sandwich Glass Flint Whale Oil Lamp W/ Original Burner Nr

Recent News: Oil Lamps

Source: Google News

Bowburn signs up to Our Big Gig
The Northern Echo, April 23rd

The night before, Pittington Brass Band will play music and Oil Lamp Productions will perform scenes from the film Brassed Off. Doors open at 6pm. Our Big Gig is described as the country's largest community music festival. Last year, more than 200,000 ...Read more

Nuns want Helena diocese to pay sex-abuse settlements
The Missoulian, April 22nd

St. Ignatius woman tells of abuse at orphanage. In the dark, spartan room lit only by an oil lamp, the priest gave the little girl a piece of candy and told her to keep her mouth shut. Read more · Anguish has never healed for Natives physically...Read more

Goats-for-Votes Pose India Deficit Risk as Poor Lack Toilets
Bloomberg, April 22nd

Clara Mary lights an oil lamp in her one-room shack, revealing a 14-inch color television sitting on a blue plastic chair that she hasn't been able to turn on since the Tamil Nadu government gave it to her three years ago. “I don't have any electricity...Read more

Photos April 22: Top images from around the world
Canada.com, April 22nd

A Nepalese Hindu devotee lights an oil lamp during the last day of a Mahayagya, holy rituals that last for seven days, near Pashupatinath temple in Katmandu, Nepal, Tuesday, April 22, 2014. The Mahayagya was organized by Hindu devotees to welcome ...Read more

Russia celebrates Easter
The Voice of Russia, April 21st

This time the flight from Tel-Aviv was 50 minutes late; however, the oil lamp carrying the religious fire was still on time for the night service at Russia's main church, Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The latter was attended by Russia's President...Read more

New solar lamp for developing countries like India
Financial Express, April 21st

SummaryA Swiss start-up has developed a new solar lamp that is more effective, safer and less expensive than the traditional oil lamp used by more than one billion people in the world, including in India...Read more

Startup Invents a 'Homemade' Solar Lamp for Developing Countries
Daily Fusion, April 16th

The solar lamp developed by LEDsafari, a young startup from Lausanne, is a more effective, safer, and less expensive form of illumination than the traditional oil lamp currently used by more than one billion people in the world. To overcome the many ...Read more

Larry's Lamps: Plainfield Historical Society event sheds light on fixtures of ...
The Bugle, April 1st

Armstrong added his parents had owned an old oil lamp, but it was lost over the years. Though Papi has done quite a lot of research on lamps, he admits he doesn't know everything about them. “History is changed daily by the discoveries that we make...Read more