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    

Vintage Aladdin Lincoln Drape Dark Cobalt Blue Oil Lamp BaseC.1890s Dragon Griffin Serpent Font Parlor Banquet Gwtw Oil Lamp Good Pot Works!Antique Victorian Cranberry Glass Font Oil Lamp Brass Barley Twist StemAntique Victorian Bradley & Hubbard Matching Figural Shade Font Hanging Oil LampFancy Htf Ca.1890s #1 Size B&h Embossed Font Wall Bracket Sconce Oil Lamp Works!Antique Fantastic 1893 Victorian Hanging Oil Lamp Possibly Charles ParkerC.1947 Victoria Poppy Ceramic China Pottery Aladdin Oil Lamp Good Model B BurnerAladdin Dark Amber Crystal Beehive Oil Lamp Font B-82d 1937-1938 Ernst Bohne & Sohne - Owl Miniature Oil Lamp. 19thc Century Porcelain. German Fancy Ca. 1880s Pink Brass Aesthetic Wall Bracket Sconce Oil Lamp Carnation FontVaseline Uranium Glass Finger Oil Lamp Vintage P & A Risdon Mfg Co Eagle Big Lot Oil Lamp Burners & Parts No. 1 And No. 2 Size Varied Selection ConditionHtf C1890s Miller New Juno No.2 Trophy Handle Center Draft Oil Lamp Works Great!Antique Astral Solar Style Oil Lamp Base For Parts Or RepairAncient Bronze Oil LampSuperb Victorian Etched Cherub Glass Oil Lamp ShadeAntique Rayo Metal Kerosene Oil Center Draft Lamp Pat'd. 1905Rare Toofs No.1 Oil Lamp Kerosene Prong Burner Patented 1868Large Vintage Angle Ny Brass & Glass Double Hanging Electric Oil Lamp Green Glass "nutmeg" Finger Hold Mini Oil LampAntique Solar Bicycle Lantern Lamp Oil Kerosene Antique Victorian Green Glass Font Oil Lamp Cast Iron Stork Birds Stem BaseOld Oil Lamp-brass-burner-plume & Atwood-super Cond.!Hobbs Blue Snowflake Pattern Oil Lamp Antiqie Old Vintage C, 1891Antique Brass Buffalo Mfg. Co. Kerosene Alcohol Or Oil Lamp FillerAntique/vintage Mini- Oil Lamp The Tiny Juno Oil Lamps (pair)19thc Victorian Era " Success" Oil Lamp Base With Hand Painted Roses DesignAladdin Heritage Oil Lamp Brass Finish W Shade Antique Model 23 Burner KeroseneCranberry Red Glass Mary Gregory Decor Finger Oil Lamp Young's England ScotlandVictorian C A Kleemans 1833 Patent Brass Student Oil Lamp With Period ShadeFancy Antique Cast Iron/chrome Oil Lamp By Non Explosive Lamp Co.Lovely Antique P&a Acorn Delft Miniature Oil Lamp Windmill/lake SceneRare Weller Louwelsa Oil Lamp Wow Form & Artistry, Incredible Colors Brass Miller Juno No 2 Gwtw Kerosene Oil Banquet Chandelier Hanging Lamp B&h 2Antique '' Bradley & Hubbard '' Banquet Oil LampRare Judaica Oil Lamp Menorah Bronze Brass Signed Hannukiah Hanukkah Israel 8wicVictorian Parlor Hanging Oil Lamp Shade Hand Painted Thistle No Fixture Frame Aladdin Oil Lamp ShadeOld 1890s Swirl Pattern Antique Hanging Oil Lamp Font W/chimneyOld Oil Lamp-brass Font- Miller-pat'd May 21 189519th C Sandwich Glass Whale Oil Lamp W Burner, No Reserve *Antique Cast Iron Electrified Oil Lamp W/amber Colored Glass Shade & Chimney YqzScarce U.s. Lighthouse Establishment Lamp Oil Filling Can C.1870-­1900 AntiqueAntique Vintage Rayo Socony Lantern Oil Lamp Nickel W/ Glass Hurricane ShadeRare Antique Indian/ Middle Eastern Solid Silver Table Oil LampScarce Antique Sun Purple Railroad Or Barn Lantern Kerosene Oil Lamp Globe PartAntique Unique Base Kerosene Oil Lamp With Frosted Glass 19th C Sandwich Glass Bullseye Pattern Whale Oil Lamp W Burner, No Reserve *Vintage Aladdin Kerosene/oil Lamp Tall Lock On Chimney "hand Spun"Special! Antique Hanging Oil Parlor Lamp With Cranberry Shade And FontStunning Victorian Acid Etched 4" Duplex Glass Oil Lamp Shade 2 Antique Oil Lamp Chimneys #1 And #2Antique Vintage Victorian Mini Miniature Milk Glass Owl Eapg Oil LampAntique Victorian Cast Iron Kerosene Oil Lamp Font Cup Reflector Wall BracketAladdin Oil Lamp Cobalt Tall Lincoln DrapeAladdin Lincoln Drape Oil Lamp In Ivory - Nu-type Model B BurnerSuperb Large Milk Glass Embossed Edwardian Oil Lamp Font.Vintage Monongah Valley Miners Oil Wick Lamp Mining Teapot Mining Antique (818)Antique Brass Horseless Carriage/auto Light/oil Lamp With Beveled Glass & Jewel

Recent News: Oil Lamps

Source: Google News

A Piece of French Dining and Wine History Up for Sale
Wine Spectator, May 2nd

Artcurial, a leading French auction house, is curating the sale. Associate director Stéphane Aubert believes sale prices should exceed catalog estimates. The estimates begin at $55 for a 116-year-old silver oil lamp and rise from there. One silver duck...Read more

Alexander the Great-Era Treasure Found in Israeli Cave
Seeker (registration) (blog), May 1st

Alongside the coins, the spelunkers found the remains of a cloth pouch with three rings, four bracelets, two decorated earrings, three other earrings, probably made of silver, a small stone weight, and a clay oil lamp. Dating from the Hellenistic...Read more

Find Oregon's smallest lighthouse on Sauvie Island's Warrior Point Hike, April 30th

An oil lamp beacon topped the structure, with simple living quarters underneath. Its purpose? To warn incoming ships of a bedrock reef that juts out from Sauvie Island into the Columbia River. The Warrior Rock Lighthouse also featured the Pacific...Read more

Orthodox Christians begin their Easter celebration, April 30th

The single candle, which is lit from an oil lamp, represents the light that is Christ. The announcement of the Resurrection begins with a reading from the Gospel according to Mark followed by the entire congregation singing, "Christ is Risen." This is...Read more

Unburying the Dead From the Pentagon's Afghan Hospital …
Foreign Policy (blog), April 29th

When he woke up and lit the oil lamp no one was there. The next morning he told his captors to bring the imam, and he converted. After that he ended up fighting alongside them against the Russians. “To start with they didn't trust me, but then one...Read more

Evidence of 2000-Year-Old Famine Found in Jerusalem
Seeker (registration) (blog), April 29th

Three intact cooking pots and a small ceramic oil lamp have provided Israeli archaeologists with the first evidence for the famine and terror that spread throughout Jerusalem during the Roman siege nearly 2,000 years ago. The items belonged to Jewish ...Read more

Book excerpt: From 'Farewell Kabul,' a visit to Herat'…
Foreign Policy (blog), April 28th

When he woke up and lit the oil lamp no one was there. The next morning he told his captors to bring the imam, and he converted. After that he ended up fighting alongside them against the Russians. “To start with they didn't trust me, but then one...Read more

Candela light by Francisco Gomez Paz combines eco-friendly fuel with LEDs and ...
Dezeen, April 18th

"Candela is really something new and is also putting together the traditional and the future," said Astep founder Alessandro Sarfatti, "because typologically it's a lantern, an oil lamp, something that you move, that you bring around, but with 21st...Read more