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 Hurricane Lantern Company Brass Skaters Lamp Oil Kerosene Mini SkatingScallop Foot Aladdin Cobalt Blue Tall Lincoln Drape Oil Lamp, Excel. Cond.Eapg Blue Finger Oil Lamp Basket Weave Match Holder Circa 1885 Rare Us Glass CoOil Gas Lamp Shade ~ Hanging Cast Font Holder ~ Aladdin ~ Antique LightingVintage Aladdin Corinthian Green Moonstone Glass Oil Lamp Bowl Base Oil Kerosene Lamp ~ Rare Pittsburgh Iris ~ Gone With Wind ~banquetHuge Antique Bronzed Art Nouveau Rochester Oil Banquet Parlor Lamp Converted YqzC 1895 Antique Angle Mfg Co. Double Oil Kerosene Leaf & Vine Lamp Wall Mount YqzVintage Bicycle Joseph Lucas Ltd Silver King Front Oil Lamp Excellent ConditionC1890 Opalescent Cranberry Glass 4" Fitter Duplex Oil Lamp Shade Ugliest On EbayGorgeous C1880 Victorian Cut Glass Brass Banquet Oil Lamp W Yellow Glass ShadeNice Pair - All Brass 3-tier Oil Side Lamps - All Early And Model T FordMedium Oil Gas Lamp Shade 10 In ~ Hand Painted ~ Aladdin ~ Antique LightingA Very Rare & Unusual Large Islamic Eastern Arabic Mughal Brass Bird Oil LampAntique Skater's Lantern (mini Oil Lamp) With Rare Teal Glass Globe, S2-9Good Antique Frilled Acid Etched Cranberry Red Glass 4-0" Duplex Oil Lamp ShadeAntique Lighting ~ Whale Oil ~ Hand Blown Glass Lamp ~ Rare Antique Cast Iron Figural Oil LampC 1895 Antique Angle Mfg Co. Double Oil Kerosene Leaf & Vine Hanging Lamp YqzAntique Hobbs Brockunier Cranberry Opalescent Windows Finger Kerosene/oil LampAntique Hobbs//eason Sewing Lamp Mini Coin Dot Opalescent Stem Oil Lamp Base -nrScarce Antique Handled Skater's Lantern (mini Oil Lamp), H-99, Two Patent DatesPerkins Marine Lantern Corprn. Wwi Era Brass Anchor Oil Lamp Ships Running LightAntique Victorian Gwtw Oil Kerosene Table Lamp Converted To ElectricVintage Aladdin Model 12 & Model B Oil Lamp BurnerFancy Embossed C1890s Miller Juno Center Draft Table Parlor Oil Lamp Works GreatJadeite Green Moonstone Sewing Oil Lamp - P&a Acorn? Stem Lamp Base - Hearts -nrVintage Aladdin Cathedral Clear Amber Glass Oil Lamp Bowl BaseAladdin Fenton ~ Limited Ruby Red ~ Oil Lamp ~ 197 / 500 ~ Rare Vertique Antique Bradley & Hubbard Victorian Cast Iron Hanging Oil Lamp N/r 99.95Scarce Antique Hobbs Opalescent Striped Miniature Oil Lamp, S1-512, Glows19th Century Glass And Brass Whale Oil Lamp, Blue Cut To Clear, Marble BaseFancy National Font Cherub Cupid Angel Head Center Draft Parlor Banquet Oil LampLarge Oil Gas Lamp Shade 12 In ~emeralite Student ~ Aladdin ~ Antique LightingAntique, Us Made, Original Globes, Circa 1880/90 Victorian Gwtw Lamp, Oil ?Vintage Green Aladdin Nu-type Model B Oil Kerosene Lamp W/wick Cleaner Mint CondAntique Oil Lamp Glass Shade Cranberry Etched Frosted 4" Hinks Messengers FitVintage Clear Glass Nu-type Aladdin Model B Mantle Oil Lamp Chicago Il Lantern Oil Kerosene Lamp ~ Parlor Lamp ~hand Painted Scene ~ Antique LightingRare Antique Storm Brothers "toy Stand Lamp" (mini Oil Lamp) S1-11 Right, GlowsVintage Aladdin Corinthian Clear Green Glass Oil Lamp Bowl BaseAntique B&h Miller Figure Grasshopper & Claw Feet Hammered Kerosene Oil Lamp Antique Victorian Brass Hanging Lamp Jewel Shade Oil BurnerFeuerhand Atom 75 German Ww2 Army Oil Railroad Lantern Lamp W/ Housing Case ~vtgVery Pretty Antique Oil Lamp By Evered & Co London Twin Duplex BurnerRare Old Large C.1900 Rose Basket Pattern 2-handled Antique Finger Oil LampBronze Age (time Of Patriarchs) Four Corner Oil Lamp From IsraelSuperb Victorian Mappin And Webb Silver Plated Oil Lamp BaseModel T Ford Tail Lamp Side Lamp Oil Font Steel And Brass Jno Brown 1913 1914Miners Oil Wick Lamp With Screw Lid - MiningAafa-a 19th C. American Whale Oil, Petticoat-peg Lamp In Early Gold PaintRobins Egg Blue Oil Lamp Shade For Harvard Burner Or French Carcel Type LampSolar Lamp Parts Cornelius Oil LampAntique 19th C Gwtw 8" Banquet Floral Glass Ball Oil Lamp Shade Hand Painted Vintage French Copper & Brass Lamp Oil Can Oiler Vgc Old ToolYale Oil Lamp Burner Similar To Harvard Rare Aladdin Alacite Short Lincoln Drape Oil Lamp Pr Brass Argand Oil Lamp Chimney/shade Holders ~ 19thcVintage 30" Hanging Swag Motion Oil Rain Lamp 70's Greek Goddess Very NiceAntique Brass Mining Miner's Oil Wick Head Lamp Star M. Hardsogg Pittsburgh Pa

Recent News: Oil Lamps

Source: Google News

I got high with the Beach Boys: “If I survive this I promise never to do drugs ...
Salon, April 26th

I remember rugs, an oil lamp, and a hookah, or maybe it was just a joint. We got stoned; I'm certain of that. I pressed him to agree that his music resembled Fauré's—I wanted to prove my point to the Times. He looked like I had pulled a knife on him...Read more

The agony of trying to watch an IPL game, April 26th

Middle part of the restaurant destroyed during the 2002 riots. Among the losses were oak chairs imported from France at Re 1 per piece. A corner of the restaurant has an oil lamp kept burning for more than 100 years where the Joshis have preserved the...Read more

Shout Out: Sally Hedstrom, Glenview resident
Chicago Tribune, April 23rd

The Oil Lamp Theater performs here, too. I'm a book reader and have been into history lately, like the Holocaust in World War II. Q: Why the Holocaust? cComments. Got something to say? Start the conversation and be the first to comment. Add a comment. 0...Read more

RiverRun Brings a Fresh Perspective on Camel City
Camel City Dispatch, April 23rd

An old woman wakes before dawn. Lights an oil lamp. Walks down a dark hallway to a kitchen. Measures flour and milk. Kneads dough. An old man measures coffee. Grinds it. Pours the boiling water. The woman brings the bread and they eat breakfast in ...Read more

Here's How to Make an Oil Lamp with Just Toilet Paper and a Can of Tuna
The Epoch Times, April 17th

If you're ever out in the woods and need to make a fire quickly, a can of tuna (packed in oil), toilet paper (or maybe cloth), and a sharp object could be a lifesaver. An error occurred. Unable to execute Javascript. First, poke a hole in the can of...Read more

Fire chief issues warning after oil lamp in religious shrine causes flat fire
This is Local London, April 12th

No one was in at the time. London Fire Brigade's Borough Commander for Harrow, Richard Claydon, said the fire appeared to have started in a plastic cabinet containing the family's plastic shrine, which had a 'PUJA' oil lamp in. He said it seemed the...Read more

Oil lamp sparks flat blaze in Harrow when occupants were out
getwestlondon, April 10th

London Fire Brigade's borough commander for Harrow Richard Claydon, said: “It appears that the fire started within a plastic cabinet containing the family's plastic shrine, which included a 'PUJA' oil lamp – a cotton bud containing a wick sitting in oil...Read more

With a little work, oil lamp could fetch pretty penny
The Tennessean, April 2nd

Assembled in the late 1800s, your figural oil lamp was made to offer a circle of light from a table in the center of a room. The ruby red shade would direct most of the light downward to a table top — to read, sew, gossip or smoke. Cupid's form and...Read more