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    

Rare Antique Miniature Hobbs Eapg Cranberry Opalescent Oil Lamp Nr!Antique Miller Wall Mount Hanging Oil Lamp Acid Etched Glass Shade & BracketBeautiful Antique Cranberry Etched Glass Oil Lamp ShadeSmall Oil Lamp Sconce Fitting Kosmos Burner Crackle Glass Cranberry Font & ShadeAntique American Centre Draught Oil Lamp Double Walled Holophane Glass ShadeStunning Victorian Art Nouveau Original Vaseline Glass Oil Lamp Shade C.1900Ca.1880s Jeweled Ansonia Hanging Oil Lamp Frame 30 Prisms Jewels Good ExtensionSweet Antique Blue Miniature Victorian Eapg Oil Lamp With Shade Aladdin KeroseenTerracotta Oil Lamp, Galley Battle, Laurel Wreath, Roman Imperial, 2. Century AdAntique Angle Oil Lamp New York City, New York-art Deco Base-blue Opalescent CapAladdin C6019 Green Moonstone Lincoln Drape Kerosene Oil Lamp. Nos.Wonderful Doulton Lambeth Oil Lamp & Shade - Signed Clara BarkerAntique Hobbs Blue Seaweed Opalescent Finger Oil Lamp.small Size.Antique Gimbal Whalers Ships Lantern Whale Oil Lamp Pre 1900 Rare Antique Amberina Paris Art Glass Miniature Oil Lamp, S1-536Large Vintage Green Glass Depression Kerosene Lamp W Shade Oil Early Hobbs White Opalescent Snowflake Oil Kerosene Lamp Aladdin Oil Lamp White Diamond Quilt Font. 13" Tall-base Pink Tapered DesignThe New Rochester Antique Oil Table Lamp Gwtw Parlor Base Only Electrified BrassTin/tole Wall Mount Oil Lamp Argand Style Sconce Stenciled Old Antique VintageAntique Miller Brass Oil Lamp Kerosene Insert Part Pair (2) 19th C. Sandwich Thumbprint Gold Stencil Font Oil Lamps W/opaline Base Antique Vintage French Original Vintners Pigeon Oil Lamp Wall Hanging Table Top Antique Oil Lamp, The Tiny Juno, Complete, Working, Nickle Plated. Not ConvertedAntique William Noe Miniature Oil Lamp End Of Day Art Glass Excellent!Aladdin Brass Font Kerosene Oil Lamp With Wall Bracket. Caboose Type Fount. Nos.Wow A Beautiful Ornate French Bronze Antique Hanging Oil LampFenton White Opalescent Latticino Swirl Oil Lamp Glass Copper Section PartA C1850 Boston & Sandwich Glass Oil Lamp, Onion Form In Blue Starch & ClambrothVintage 1970's Hanging Motion Oil Rain Lamp W/ Nude Greek Goddess & Green Fern Antique Scovill Queen Anne Cranberry Opalescent Swirl Oil Lamp Kerosene Lot Of 9 Vintage / Antique Table Lighters - Pair Of Oil Lamps - Street Lamp Antique Sandwich Glass-style Blue Acanthus Leaf Whale Oil Lamp And Burner Antique Hinks Duplex Double Burner Oil Lamp ~no Rsrv~Vintage Antique Islamic Seljuk Revival Silver Inlaid Bronze Oil Lamp1880's Parker Victorian Hanging Kero Oil Lamp Canopy W/ Motor & Shade LevelerVintage Oil Lamp Hanging Ceiling Fixture-ceiling Chain/ Ceiling Hook/4 Needs TlcBoxlot Aladdin Oil Lamp Burner B11 Flame Spreaders Match Holder Lightmaster WickBeautiful Antique Glass Whale Oil Lamp, White Opaque Font & Blue Clambroth BaseMiniature Diamond Quilted Velvet Butterscotch Kerosene Oil Lamp S I Fig 531Superb Genuine Victorian 4" Duplex Acid Etched Glass Oil Lamp Tulip Shade Antique Royal Kerosene/oil Brass Lamp Font1880's Hobbs Cranberry Opalescent 'snowflake' Kerosene Oil No. 1 Stem LampExtremely Rare 'moderator' Oil Lamp, Pre-paraffin Design C.1860 Working ExampleVintage Antique 10" Frosted Glass Gwtw Hurricane Student Oil Floral Lamp Shade12 Crystal Glass Chandelier Prisms Saw Spear Shaped Astral,oil,chandelier, LampEapg Snowflake Opalescent Oil LampRare Vintage Nyc Railroad Oil Lamp Lantern Wall Mount...minty..caboose PassengerVintage 10” Melon Ribbed Gwtw Hurricane Oil Lamp Shade Frosted Milk Glass FloralVintage Rain Oil Drip Motion Lamp Venus Long Cord Pretty Retro Piece Antique Hanging Whale Oil Burner Betty Lamp Primitive Lighting Hand Forged 12 "Antique 'bradley & Hubbard" Parlor Oil LampCranberry Red Coin Dot Kerosene Oil Banquet Lamp Ruffled Shade 4" Fitter GlassAntique Red Satin Gone With The Wind Oil Lamp Base / Roses / Item # 4Ancient Late Roman Byzantine Holy Land Pottery Oil Lamp - 500 AdVintage New Raining Oil Lamp Victorian Style Woman Brass In Orig Box Look Antique Oil Lamp Hamilton Burner Vintage Glass Shade Amazing !!1870-80's Sandwich Fall Leaves Decorated 14" Kero Oil Slant Hanging Lamp ShadeGreen Glass Dolphin Fish Lamp Base Whale Oil Ca 1870 Wall Mount Bracket Lamp A B & C Co. Dated Screw Type Bottom Rare Oil Gc

Recent News: Oil Lamps

Source: Google News

Pastor parts with possessions, but not with life's work
Houston Chronicle (subscription), May 29th

There were the 12-by-16-inch needlepoint rendering of Jesus washing his apostles' feet, the three-piece Waterford crystal nativity, the Victorian hanging oil lamp, the antique child's rocking chair, and the mother of pearl plaque from the Holy Land...Read more

A once in a lifetime opportunity
Lusk Herald, May 28th

Hand blown, crystal chandeliers from Italy, and Ireland, light the parlor, and dining room areas, and the original 14k gold washed, wallpaper still hangs on the walls, in hopes of giving the house a warm and welcome feel in the days of oil lamp lighting...Read more

San Jose: Glass artists take their show to Plaza de Cesar Chavez on June 4
San Jose Mercury News, May 27th

The equipment and torches available have advanced far beyond the days of the oil lamp, and large-scale sculptures can now be created on a tabletop torch." More recent advances include the 3D printer, which Theofanous says has opened up a whole new ...Read more

Transforming A 2009 GMC 2500HD Workhorse With LED lighting From Vision X
TruckTrend Network, May 27th

Unfortunately, in many cases, the stock lighting system for new trucks is adequate at best. Since OEM headlights don't cast light across any great distance, the light they provide is on par with that of a turn-of-the-century oil lamp. When rigs like...Read more

Glenview's Oil Lamp Theater reveals its next show
The Glenview Lantern, May 26th

“Never The Bridesmaid,” a new comedy by Chicago playwright Bill Jepsen, will be the next offering at Glenview's Oil Lamp Theater. The love story had its Jeff Award-winning world premier at the Polarity Ensemble Theater in Chicago just two years ago...Read more

Comedy 'Later Life' next up at Oil Lamp
The Glenview Lantern, May 7th

What would you do if you were given a second chance? A real chance to recapture something wonderful that you'd let slip away long ago? Would you be brave enough to take it? Would you be willing to risk everything for a chance at the happiness you once ...Read more

Oil Lamp Theater explores crises of 'Later Life'
Chicago Tribune, April 30th

For Anderson, directing this Oil Lamp production has elements of déjà vu. She directed "Later Life" in 2010 in Chicago for Keith Gerth at his home theater before he established Oil Lamp in Glenview in 2012, where he serves as artistic director. Recast...Read more

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

(Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority)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...Read more