For thousands of years, lamp technology more or less stayed static, and no wonder. Experimenting with oil and fire tended to lead to explosions or fires. The betty or phoebe lamps used by American colonists were similar to the lamps used in biblical times—a shallow dish, often made of pewter, filled with oil or grease and a floating wick or rag. These low-tech lamps smoked and gave off faint, flickering light, similar to candles. Candles and devices using this oil-burning technique were the main means used to light homes, employed in candelabras, wall sconces, and elegant chandeliers.

It wasn't until the Victorian era that oil lamps improved, thanks to inventions that permitted lamps to burn whale-oil and, later, kerosene—today, these are the primary kinds of antique lamps most favored by collectors. In the late 18th century, Swiss chemist Aime Argand invented the first lamp didn't require a free-floating wick. Instead, it used a flame-enclosing burner and a wick bent into a cylinder shape, which provided the fire with just enough air. Argand's experiments also led to the development of glass chimneys, which were essentially tubes that contained the flame without blowing up.

Thanks to Argand’s ingenuity, new lamps were developed using whale and rapeseed oil (also called colza or canola oil). Because colza oil was so viscous, it had to be fed to the wick from above, or pumped from below. Many of the lamps' side fuel reservoirs were shaped like classical urns, which unfortunately obstructed some of the flame’s light. The Simumbra lamp, however, featured a circular reservoir around the base of the glass light shade.

Whale oil, in particular, was popular because it burned with less smoke and odor than other oils. This fostered a tremendous boom in the whaling industry, which nearly drove some species to extinction. At its peak in 1856, the United States whaling industry produced between four- and five-million gallons of whale oil annually.

Whale-oil lamps used one to six metal tubes that held circular wicks. These tubes—usually there were two—attached to a metal base. The very earliest whale oil lamps were made of pewter and flamed at the top, like a candle. Those designed to be carried or hung on the wall held the oil in a bowl- or jar-shaped reservoir and had a U-shaped handle.

Pewter lamps often lack a maker's mark, although you're more likely to find one trademarked by Roswell Gleason, Eben Smith, or Caper Molineux, than Israel Trask, Boardman, or Calder, all of whom were prominent lamp makers of the day. The commune Brook Farm also produced pewter lamps between 1841 and 1847.

It wasn't long before glass companies introduced whale oil lamps made of blown glass and shaped like vases with goblet-style bases. These often artfully designed lamps contained ...

When collectors are lucky enough to locate a beautiful glass whale oil lamp from this period, the piece is often missing its metal burners and internal tubes that held the wick. That's because in the 1860s, it was a common money-saving move to have your household whale-oil lamps refitted with kerosene burners.

In 1849, Canadian scientist Abraham Gesner figured out how to extract kerosene (also called "coal oil" or "paraffin") from petroleum, a discovery that fueled the invention of even better lamps, particularly after oil was found in Pennsylvania. Michael Dietz patented a clean-burning kerosene lamp, which hit the market in 1857, delivering a swift blow to the whaling industry. This new cheap fuel smelled better than whale oil and did not rot the way whale oil would. The kerosene lamp’s flat wick and burner was perfected in the 1860s, as more and more kerosene plants opened.

Early kerosene lamps were known as wick lamps. They featured a small fuel tank for a base with a lamp burner attached to the top. The wick reached the fuel through a wick tube on the lamp's burner, which usually had a wick-adjustment mechanism that controlled the intensity of the flame. This device was topped with a glass chimney, which protected the flame from being blown out and increased the draft of oxygen to the flame.

All sorts of variations on this design were developed in the Victorian era. The first kerosene lamps were usually of a low-light, "dead-flame" design, wherein the flame was fed with fresh air below and the heated air was released on top. In the late 1860s, Dietz Lantern introduced the "hot blast" tubular lamp design, which circulated a mix of fresh and warm air through side tubes and improved the brightness of the flame. In 1880, other innovators came up with an even brighter-burning "cold blast" design.

Another variation on the wick lamp is the mantle lamp, in which a circular wick burns underneath a conical mantle containing thorium or other actinide or rare-earth salts that glow with tremendous brightness and warmth. Aladdin lamps are probably the best-known brand of mantle lamp—the Aladdin company actually started out as the Mantle Lamp Company.

As much as Victorian loved to tinker with mechanical inventions, they were just as enamored with all things frilly and ornate. The oil lamp chimneys, also known as lamp shades, became the focus of their artistry, as they became shaped like globes or umbrellas, sometimes frosted or etched to reduce the intensity of the light. Typically, oil-lamp manufacturers made the metal parts (the base and burner) and bought the glass elsewhere. Holmes, Booth and Haydens, for example, would buy glass shades from companies like Fostoria or Consolidated. The cheapest and most utilitarian shades were plain opal chimneys made of milk glass.

The most expensive oil lamps became elaborately detailed works of art glass, designed in a startling variety of shapes and colors, including satin glass, amberina, cranberry, and mother of pearl. Early chimneys were hand blown and free-form—these limited-production chimneys with peddle tops and frothed or etched designs are more scarce and in demand than later machine-made examples.

Some shades were engraved or cut with delicate designs, while others were decorated with transfers or hand-painted images in the forms of flowers, portraits, or landscapes. In addition, there was case glass, really two different layers of glass with the inside white to reflect more light and the outside colored (the green and white combination is quite common). Others were made of slag glass, a popular type of opaque, streaked pressed glass, and many featured crystal tassels. Today, these gorgeous and functional lamps are prized by collectors.

Manufacturers competed with one another to see who could come up with the most desirable and unique lamp designs. For example, lamps known today as “Gone With the Wind” style, featuring a large, showy bulbous bowl or globe, became tremendously popular in the 1880s. By 1885, lamp companies were also making shades out of mica, horn, and porcelain. Some chimneys even took convoluted or spiral forms.

In the United States, Bryce, McKee and Company specialized in table lamps, while the Mount Washington Glass Works in New Bedford, Massachusetts, produced chandeliers and globe-shaped shades. Several Pittsburgh companies specialized in shades and chimneys, including Excelsior Flint Glass Company, Keystone Flint Glass Manufacturing Company, Adams and Company, and Atterbury and Company.

Some of the most stunning lamps were made in Europe. F. and C. Osler of Birmingham, England, made breath-taking glass lamps and chandeliers displayed in the 1878 Paris Exhibition. Paris' own Lissaute and Cosson's Glass Works produced black glass lamp bases encrusted with colored and pearl ornaments. European potteries like those in Dresden, Germany, exported porcelain lamps with flowers and Rococo-style Cupids in high relief. But by the late 19th century, the introduction of gas lighting and electric power meant the era of the kerosene lamp would soon come to an end.

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]

The Scrap Album

The Scrap Album

Malcolm Warrington’s The Scrap Album is a handsomely organized site, as you’d expect from an articulate champio… [read review or visit site]

Stevengraphs Bookmarks and Postcards

Stevengraphs Bookmarks and Postcards

Malcolm Roebuck's tribute to the ornate silk picture bookmarks and postcards ('Stevengraphs') produced by Thomas St… [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

Most watched eBay auctions    

Victorian Art Nouveau Moulded & Etched Kerosene Paraffin Oil Lamp Duplex ShadeAntique Victorian Cranberry Hobnail Hanging Oil Lamp Shade ~no Rsrv~Fabulous Original Victorian Vaseline Duplex Oil Lamp ShadeSlag Glass Victorian 1910-1925 Antique Bradley Hubbard Handel Miller Era Lamp NrVictorian Stencil Etched Etched Kerosene Paraffin Oil Lamp Beehive Duplex ShadeTs Victorian Fine Cut Pillared Oil Lamp!Rare Antique Victorian Art Glass Opalescent Coin Dot Spot Oil Lamp Shade BlueBrilliant Victorian Oil Lamp From Dunham Railway Station 1848Large Antique Victorian 26 1/4" Figural Spelter Metal Newell Post Lamp Statue NrAntique Blown Molded Pink Peachblow Satin Victorian Glass Swirled Oil LampVictorian / Georgian Rare Snuffer Figural Brass Column Oil Lamp Base N/resLa Polaire By Salsbury Victorian Bicycle Lamp For Penny Farthing 1880s Very Rare19 C Antique Victorian Cast Iron Tambourine Player Electrified Table Lamp Yqz(2) Antique Victorian Style Putti Statue Figural Candelabra Candlesticks LampAntique Victorian Glass Beaded Lamp Shade For Your Old Electric LampAntique Victorian Era Emerald Green Glass Center Draft Gwtw Style Oil LampVintage Hurricane Gone With The Wind Hand Painted Hurricane Lamp Victorian YqzOil Kerosene Lamp ~ Metal Jeweled Table Lamp ~ Font Holder ~ VictorianAntique Victorian Table Brass Oil Lamp Figural Bust W/trophy Stem ~no Rsrv~Scarce Color Antique Christmas Light C1890 Prussian Blue Victorian Lamp XmasOil Kerosene Lamp ~ornate Metal Table Lamp ~ Font Holder ~ VictorianSuperb Original Victorian 4" Duplex Acid Etched Glass Oil Lamp Tulip ShadeAntique Christmas Light C1890 Lime Green Early Victorian Lamp Xmas Candle Antique Christmas Light C1890 Green Early Victorian Fariy Lamp Xmas CandleVictorian Parlour Lamp Still In Oil Original Cased Glass Base + ShadeAntique Vtg Victorian Cast Iron Oil Lamp Holder Bracket Fixture Wall SconceAntique Christmas Light C1890 Cobalt Blue Early Victorian Lamp Xmas Candle CleanChristmas Light C1890 Emerald Green Early Victorian Lamp Xmas Candle Holder 23" Vintage Victorian Style Gone With The Wind Parlor Lamp Hand PaintedVintage Victorian Slag Glass Hanging Filigree Design Candle LampAntique Milk Glass Hanging Oil Lamp Victorian Burnt Match Holder Fleur-de-lisVintage Victorian Gone W/the Wind Kerosene Oil Rose Flowers Floral Lamp 24" C=37Ornate Victorian Oil Lamp With Cut Glass Bowl - Converted To ElectricAntique Pair Set~miniature Clear Glass Oil Lamps~victorian Ribbon Decorative ~Antique Christmas Light C1890 Deep Green Early Victorian Lamp Xmas Candle CleanAntique Christmas Light C1890 Honey Amber Early Victorian Lamp Xmas CandleChristmas Light 1890 Milk Glass Baby Blue Victorian Lamp Xmas Candle Holder Peacock Blue Paneled Victorian Antique Art Glass Undamaged Peg Lamp Magnificent Antique Victorian Hanging Kerosene Lamp Shade Fitter - HolderAntique/vintage Victorian Bridge Arm Brass Floor Lamp With Jadeite BallAntique Gone With The Wind Gwtw Oil Lamp Parlor Victorian Hand Painted FlowersVictorian Gone With Wind Or Parlor Lamp, Lion Faces, Camels, Desert, Palms EtcAntique Christmas Light 1890 Amber Brown Early Victorian Lamp Xmas Candle HolderC1890 Christmas Light Unique Cobalt Blue Early Victorian Lamp Xmas Candle HolderRare Copper Victorian The Improved Hitchcock Kerosene Oil Lamp Light Burner PartVintage Victorian Cream Floral Satin Brocade Curved Table Lamp ShadeChristmas Light C1890 Milk Glass Tall White Victorian Lamp Xmas Candle HolderVictorian Gone With The Wind Lamp Converted To Electric Beautiful Hand PaintedAntique Vtg Victorian Jeweled Brass Kerosene Oil Lamp Shade Part Usa #x13 Vintage Victorian Style Red Satin Floral Brocade 8"h Fringed Lamp ShadeDecorative Antique Victorian Oil Lamp Bracket With Wallmount Antique Victorian Little Butter Cup Kerosene Oil Finger Lamp W/ P&a Burner Vintage Miniature Oil Lamp Milk Glass Victorian Drk Tinted Gold Rabbit PatternVintage Old Antique Christmas Victorian Diamond Quilted Oil Light Lantern LampP & A Royal Victorian Style Brass Wall Sconce Oil Lamp - Repaired TankPairpoint Victorian Art Deco Cherub Art Nouveau Glass Marble Boudoir Lamp BaseVintage Old Antique Christmas Victorian Diamond Quilted Oil Light Lantern LampAntique Victorian Silk Lamp Shade Hubbell Brass 1904 Holder Pink Ribbon MetallicVintage Porcelain Table Lamp Victorian Or Colonial Couple Dancing 19 1/2" Tall Two Heinrichsen German Lead Flat Snowy Victorian Lamp Posts Winter Scene

Recent News: Victorian Lamps

Source: Google News

Bringing the NRI back to India
Livemint, September 18th

The mood will be a touch of colonial nostalgia and deep-rooted Indianness in a warm and casual setting with Victorian lamp posts, a chic thela (food cart), and seating that references railway stations from the 1920s. An altogether different universe...Read more

Helen and Alec Durie are still waiting on a payment for their red zoned property, July 31st

"You couldn't get anything with the amount they were going to give us. We wouldn't be here, but we didn't have any insurance." But the couple enjoy the "peace and quiet" of their transformed neighbourhood. Formerly Waygreen Ave. Victorian lamp posts in...Read more

The “internet of things”
MoneyWeek, July 27th

The WeMo Maker turns any standard, low-voltage electronic device into a smart piece of tech connected to the “internet of things”, says T3. You could transform that antique Victorian lamp into smartphone-controlled lighting, for example, or get your...Read more

Historic artefacts to be removed from Prince of Wales Pier for Port of Dover ...
Dover Express, July 13th

VICTORIAN lamp standards and other historic artefacts on the 1,260-foot long Prince of Wales' Pier are to be removed and stored for use elsewhere in dockland in the future. Details of the work, soon to start, are revealed in a planning application by...Read more

An Elegant Townhouse in a Revived Corner of London
New York Times, February 26th

There is rare, highly prized off-street parking for two cars in front of the house, marked by an original Victorian lamp post. Located on a side street to the east of Earls Court Road, the house is in one of Earls Court's many streets and squares that...Read more

Thieves steal six-foot Victorian lamp from Gedney Hill garden
Lincolnshire Echo, February 10th

A distinctive 6ft tall Victorian garden lamp has been stolen from the garden of a Lincolnshire village. Police are appealing for information about the overnight theft which happened at Gedney Hill, near Spalding, between Friday and Saturday. "The...Read more

Upper Norwood residents in Victorian lamp post row
Streatham Guardian, June 12th

Residents of an Upper Norwood street have criticised the council for replacing Victorian-style lighting columns with modern ones. As part of a borough-wide programme to upgrade street lights, new street lamps have been fitted along Mowbray Road, but ...Read more

Neighbours' fury as classic Victorian lamp-posts are dug up and moved to ...
Daily Mail, June 4th

Just over 30 Victorian lamp posts have illuminated the streets of St Andrews, an up-and-coming area of Bristol, since the 1920s. But in April, the city's Labour-run council started replacing them with brighter models as part of a drive to improve crime...Read more