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    

Amazing Victorian Brass Gas Griifin Oil Lamp Brakets Wall Lights C1870 No/ ResVictorian Cranberry Peach Etched Glass Duplex Kerosene Oil Paraffin Lamp ShadeVictorian Vaseline Glass Duplex Kerosene Oil Lamp Shade Powell Suit Was BensonTilley R1 Radiator Pressure Kerosene Oil Paraffin Gas Table Heater LampRare Antique B & H Brass Jeweled Hanging Parlor Oil Lamp Ceiling Fixture NrAntique Cranberry Opalescent Oil Kerosene Hanging Lamp FontBeautiful Victorian Acid Etched Cranberry Oil Lamp Shade 4" Base Diameter~early~ Original Aladdin Model 12 Oil / Kerosene Floor Lamp (no Reserve)Victorian Yellow Etched Glass Duplex Kerosene Paraffin Oil Lamp Tulip ShadeCast Iron Yellow Dog Oil Well Supply Pittsburgh Derrick Lamp Oil City LanternAafa-late 18th, Early 19th C. " Make-do" Double Wick Whale Oil Lamp, Wood Base.Antique Tall Blue/white Glass Solar Astral Oil Lamp W/ Shade Never Electrified!Pink Diamond Quilt Miniature Oil Lamp - Mini Gwtw - Student ShadeAntique Victorian Acid Etched Glass Gas / Oil Lamp Shade With Houses And CowsVintage Aladdin Vertique Yellow Kerosene Oil Lamp Uranium Model 23 BurnerGwtw Consolidated 1890-93 Red Satin Kerosene Oil Chamber Lamp-27"-gone The WindImpressive Antique Pink Opaline Glass Duplex Oil Lamp Reservoir And MechanismRed Satin Glass Miniature Oil Lamp - P&a Acorn - Mini Gwtw - VictorianWonderful Antique Solar Astral Oil Lamp W/ Shade Complete And Great ConditionMiniature 1760 -1840 Hand Blown Whale Oil Lamp Rare Hobbs Seaweed / Coral Reef Antique Miniature Stand Kerosene Oil Lamp (2) Antique Fancy Solar Astral Oil Lamp Lamps With Figural Faces 1800's Hobbs Blue Opalescent Snowflake Oil Kerosene Lamp # 1Blue Artichoke Miniature Oil Lamp - Nutmeg Burner - Mini Gwtw - VictorianVictorian Amethyst Machine Etched Glass Duplex Kerosene Oil Paraffin Lamp ShadeRare Antique Bronze & Brass Solar Astral Oil Lamp Sconce W/ Draft SystemVintage Pink Miniature Kerosene Oil LampVintage Figural Oil Lamp Set Of 2 With Spelter Wolfhounds, Circa 1880'sVintage Aladdin Model 12 Vogue Vase Oil Kerosene Lamp With New Lox-on Chimney NrAntique Victorian Art Glass 14" Large Hobnail Yellow Opalescent Oil Lamp ShadeRare Antique Blue Opalescent Spatter Miniature Kerosene Oil Lamp Yellow Diamond Quilted Miniature Lamp - Satin Glass Footed Mini Oil LampRare Old Victorian Hand Painted Miller Cranberry-burmese Banquet-parlor Oil LampAntique Gwtw Primrose Red Satin Lamp-32" Marble-brass-oil Kerosene-electrifiedAntique Aladdin Oil Lamp White Glass Metal BaseAntique 19thc French Victorian Era Soldat Spartiate Oil Lamp Figural Statue BaseAntique 1880's Ornate Embossed Miller Brass Miniature Oil Lamp W/shade SupportPair, (2) Antique Victorian Acid Etched Glass Gas / Oil Lamp Shades W/ WindmillsAntique R / R Santafe Railroad Switch Train Oil Lamp Light N/r 49.95Antique Victorian Ornate Eastlake Style Hanging Oil Lamp Fixture For 14" ShadeAntique Lg 13 5/8" Painted Fenton Burmese Rose Patterned Oil Kerosene Lamp ShadeGood Quality & Stylish Victorian Copper & Brass Oil Lamp - Lampe Veritas BurnerFenton Style Pressed Orange Carnival Or Depression Glass Kerosene Oil LampVtg Banquet Frosted Glass Oil Table Lamp Globe Shade W/ Cupid Cherub Baby FaceNice C.1936 Aladdin "b-126" Moonstone Rose "corinthian" Kerosene Oil Lamp Usa Bradley & Hubbard Oil Kerosene Lamp FontAntique Victorian Glass Miniature Oil Lamp Jewled ShadeFabulous Original Victorian Cut Crystal Oil Lamp FontAntique Brass Thos B Adams Ny Student Oil Lamp 10" Satin Lemon Lime Glass ShadeAntique Victorian 22" Tall Ornate Kerosene/oil Table Lamp LanternAntique 'bradley & Hubbard ' Banquet Oil LampLovely Aged Pair Of Sandwich Glass Heart Pattern Whale Oil LampsVery Rare Published Aqua Satin Antique Miniature Kerosene Oil Lamp Kerosene Oil Lamp Red Satin Ball Shade For Banquet LampAntique Dietz Tubular Square Lamp Lantern Font Fuel Tank Oil Pot Burner No. 1 Bronze Regency Gilt & Patinated Sinumbra Oil Lamp Standard ~ Ca1825Extremely Rare 'moderator' Oil Lamp, Pre-paraffin Design C.1860 Working ExampleVintage Rain Lamp Venus Mineral Oil Light Motion Work Brand New In The BoxAladdin Oil LampAntique Victorian Glass Miniature Oil Lamp Purple Swirl Glass

Recent News: Oil Lamps

Source: Google News

Apparently Porcupines Are 'Excellent Archaeologists'. See the Ancient Artifact ..., March 26th

Human archaeologists get all the credit when it comes to finding treasures that give us a glimpse into antiquity, but not this time. This time it was a porcupine who is being hailed as discovering a 1,400-year-old oil lamp in Israel. ?? ?? ?????...Read more

Porcupine unearths 1400-year-old oil lamp in central Israel
Radio Australia, March 25th

A porcupine unearths a 1,400-year-old ceramic lamp after digging his burrow at an Israeli site rich with ancient treasures, according to the Israeli antiquities authority. The oil lamp uncovered by a porcupine. (Credit: AFP). A porcupine has unearthed...Read more

New day, new discovery in Israel: Ancient oil lamp, artillery shells unearthed
i24news, March 24th

An ancient ceramic oil lamp was uncovered by a porcupine last week at the Horbat Siv ancient ruins, a Roman-Byzantine site near Emek Hefer in central Israel, Israel's Antiquities Authorities (IAA) said. The lamp, believed to be 1,400 years old was...Read more

Porcupine Unearths Oil Lamp in Central Israel
Archaeology, March 23rd

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL—Anti-antiquities-theft inspectors spotted an oil lamp on top of a pile of dirt while on patrol at Horbat Siv, a Roman-Byzantine site in central Israel. It turned out that the lamp had been brought to the surface by a porcupine...Read more

Porcupine unearths 1400 year old oil lamp at archaeological site in Emek Hefer
Jerusalem Post Israel News, March 23rd

Last week, during a routine patrol at the Horbat Siv ancient ruins – a Roman-Byzantine site near Emek Hefer in central Israel, anti-antiquities theft inspectors found the oil lamp on top of a pile of dirt that a porcupine had unearthed while digging a...Read more

In 1905, woman died after coal oil lamp explosion
Coshocton Tribune, March 21st

Mrs. Richard Wills (Margaret Adams) was burned when a coal oil lamp exploded. The lamp hanging from a swinging arm above the stove, and had been acting poorly for the last few days. Mrs. Wills inserted a new burner and assumed it was working properly...Read more

Columbus Museum of Art makes nurses its latest muse
OSU - The Lantern, March 18th

Since the symbol for nursing has become an image of an oil lamp, Genshaft said she decided to have both types of lighting fixtures positioned in cases in the exhibition so people can see the differences. Genshaft said the final section on modern...Read more

Oil Lamp brings its show 'On The Road'
The Glenview Lantern, March 13th

A crowd of nearly 90 people filed in to the Glenview Public Library on March 10, looking to be entertained by four one-act plays presented by the Oil Lamp Theater. The audience's response throughout “On The Road: All or Nothing” was a resounding thumbs ...Read more