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 1937 Aladdin Ruby Red Beehive Kerosene Oil Lamp, Burner & Chimney NrAntique 19th C. Pair Blown & Cut 11" Glass Whale Oil Lamps Eapg Sandwich BostonRare Antique Victorian Boston Sandwich Glass White Cut To Clear Whale Oil LampAntique Original Wayne Gas Station Lamp Island Pump Globe Lighter Gas Oil Sign Antique The Leader Brass Bicycle Bike Oil Kerosene Lantern Lamp Light W/ Jewels19thc Antique Victorian Era Grotesque Face Old Wrought Iron Oil Lamp Plant StandKerosene Oil Brass 10 Inch Ives Shade Holder Original Ives Number 2 Lamp BurnerAmazing Antique Success Gone With The Wind Oil Kerosene LampWanzer Kerosene Oil Lamp Clockwork Sunlight & Safety Lamp Hitchcock Kranzow TypeAntique Victorian Bradley & Hubbard Hanging Parlor Oil Lamp Matching Shade/fontFine Antique 18th-19th Century India Bronze Figural Oil Lamp With ElephantsAntique Ruby Red Aladdin Oil Lamp Old Vintage Tall Lincoln Drape Antique Vaseline Glass Oil LampVintage Coleman Model 160 Kero-lite Non-pressure Mantle Oil LampAntique Gwtw Parlor Kerosene Oil Lamp White Madonna Lillies 24" Tall SignedAladdin B-111 "apple Green" Moonstone Corinthian Oil Lamp 1935-1936 Bradley & Hubbard ~ The B&h Brass Kerosene/oil Lamp Ornate Embossed Still In OilAntique Victorian Full Size Oil Lamp Shade Duplex Fitting.Kerosene Oil Miniature Toy Stand Lamp Olmsted Burner White Milk Glass ShadeSolid Silver Edwardian Oil Lamp Cut Glass Hawksworth Eyre & Co 1909 Sheffield"the Tiny Miller" Oil Lamp Font/burner/base/spider Embossed Old Vtg AntiqueUnusual Antique Glass Two Finger Oil Lamp /finger LampAntique Aladdin 1935-1936 Corinthian Green Model B Oil Lamp W/ Lox On ChimneyBig Antique Aladdin Green Glass Hurricane Oil Lamp N/r 39.95Aladdin B-112 "rose" Moonstone Corinthian Oil Lamp 1935-1936 Rare Bohemian Heavily Hand Cut Cranberry Glass Oil Lamp With Original Shade Nice Antique Miniature Hobbs Blue Opalescent Windows Oil Lamp Excl.condition.Antique Bradley & Hubbard Hanging Pull Down Oil Lamp - Griffin Motif- AwesomeBrass Solar Oil Lamp Font ~ 19thcModel T Ford Oil Side Lamps Lights Corcoran 1916 - 1925Antique Cast Iron Hanging Oil Lamp Frame 2 Arm Antique ' Mathew & Willard " Cherub ' Banquet Oil LampRare Eapg Us Glass Turkey Foot Blue Stand Oil Lamp W/burner & Chimney No ReserveModel T Ford Oil Tail Lamp Light Victor 1916 - 1923Antique B&h Hanging Store Kerosene Oil Lamp Nickel Plated Bronze FontThe New Juno No. 2 Brass Kerosene/oil Lamp Ornate Embossed Still In OilVintage~~~aladdin Oil Lamp & Chimney~~~corinthian---moonstone & Black BaseAntique Victorian Hanging Oil Lamp Glass Shade Floral Hand Painted Pink Green Aladdin B-102 Green Corinthian Oil Lamp 1935-1936 All OriginalAntique ? Majolica Hanging Oil Lamp Kerosene + Electric Option + Beaded Fringe Rare Antique 1860 Jd Brown Primitive Whale Oil Lamp Lantern Pierced StarsAntique Fischer Zsolnay Hungarian Budapest Art Pottery Kerosene Oil LampAntique French Victorian Art Nouveau Oil Lamp. Belle EpochNib Aladdin Aluminum Kerosene Oil Table Lamp #23 BurnerOld Antique Victorian Bisque Oil Lamp Pull Swinger Girl W Punch DollHigh Quality 1.5" Screw Fit Oil Lamp Burner With Very Rare Winged Wheel MarkingsVintage Gone With The Wind Elect. Oil Lamp Square Bottom Globe Extremely RareLovely Acid Etched Victorian Glass Oil Lamp Shade /tulip 1870s Antique Oil Kerosene Student Lamp Frosted Cut Glass Font 19" High BrassAntique Cast Iron Base Oil Lamp C. 1908Antique "bradley & Hubbard " Banquet Oil Lamp 1937 Aladdin Model B Diamond Quilt Black And White Moonstone Kerosene Oil LampAntique Double Angle Oil Lamps For Parts(2)Antique Lot Javanese Metalware Containers Oil Lamps Spice Box PyxixAntique "bradley & Hubbard " Banquet Oil LampVintage Antique Gone With The Wind Glass Lamp Shade Hand Painted Globe OilB&h Bradley Hubbard Piano Wall Hanging Oil Kerosene Lamp Font Antique VtgCast Iron Glass Antique Oil Lamp Wall Sconce Vintage Kerosene Primitive Vtg Usa#1 Baby Blue Finger Oil Lamp New Calcium Light 1870 Burner 2" Pie Crust ChimneyOilfield Lamp Oil Well Bop Derrick Drill Rig Gold Model W Gas Bit Keychain Gift

Recent News: Oil Lamps

Source: Google News

How Germany banishes climate myths
CNN, December 18th

The age of fossil fuel is coming to an end, just as the age of the horse and cart, the steam locomotive and the oil lamp eventually came to an end. But to hasten this end, we must invest in our future. Scientists estimate that more than $90 trillion...Read more

Vietnam family makes a school out of ancient oil lamps
Tuoitrenews, December 17th

Local people often call Le Cong Anh Duc “the oil lamp school” due to its roots. For the last two years, local children have no longer had to study in the dilapidated classroom in the office of the Dien Hong People's Committee like before. Nguyen Thi Ly...Read more

Peace Light comes to Osage UMC again
Mason City Globe Gazette, December 17th

Those seeking the flame should bring a lantern, oil lamp or candle in a protective container to safely transport the flame to its destination. The Iowa Religious Media Services has again joined forces with the Mid-Iowa Council of the Boy Scouts to make...Read more

Local children celebrate Hanukkah with party
WKTV, December 17th

A party took place at the Jewish Community Center in South Utica. Each child added an oil drop to a lamp. Each drop represents that child's personality. The oil lamp tells the story of Hanukkah. It symbolizes the oil that burned in the holy temple for...Read more

Hanukkah a time for brisket
Daytona Beach News-Journal, December 16th

Because oil is so closely tied to the story of the holiday (the Hanukkah miracle is that an oil lamp stayed lit for eight days on a day's worth of fuel when it suited a holy purpose in the 2nd century BC), all manner of fritters and jelly-filled...Read more

Festival of Lights ceremony marks beginning of Hanukkah, December 16th

According to tradition, once lit, the oil lamp should never be extinguished, but the Maccabees had only enough oil for one day. During Hanukkah, people celebrate the miracle that the lamp stayed lit for eight days with the small amount of oil that...Read more

Show us your menorah! How celebs celebrate Hanukkah
New York Post, December 16th

As if there weren't enough choices to make already — paper or plastic? PC or Mac? — Hanukkah observers have yet another: electric or candle? We're talking menorahs, those nine-branched candelabras representing the oil lamp that burned for eight days ...Read more

Making Dead People's Pulses Beat Again
Smithsonian, December 16th

on hospital monitors — go back at least to 1854, when a German scientist pressed a weighted plate against an artery, connected it to a stylus made of a strand of hair, and traced the pulsations on a moving strip of paper blackened by the soot of...Read more