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

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Victorian Wall Sconce Oil Lamp Pair Cranberry Glass Bird Shades & Fonts 1890sVictorian Art Nouveau Etched Glass Kerosene Oil Paraffin Duplex Lamp Tulip ShadeAntique 19th C Adjustable Victorian Floor Piano Oil Lamp Electrified Cherubs YqzRare 19th C Antique Victorian Frosted & Cut Glass Astral Oil Lamp ShadeRare Victorian Sterling Silver Novelty Cigar Cutter Piercer As Lantern Lamp 1890Antique Oil Lamp 19th Century Kerosene Whale Oil Victorian Glass Satin Glass?Unique Antique Art Nouveau Era Brass Footed Victorian Parlor Banquet Oil LampVictorian Antique Cranberry Etched Girl Bonnet Boy Piper Oil Gas Lamp Shade19th C Antique Victorian Bronze Astral Oil Lamp Base W Crystal Prisms Antique Victorian Acid Etched Cranberry Glass Oil Lamp ShadeVictorian Antique Cranberry Opalescent Ribbed Spiral Oil Gas Lamp Shade19thc Victorian Era Gas Table Lamp W Original Etched ShadeAntique Victorian Vaseline Uranium Glass Finger Oil Lamp " Glows "Large 19th C Antique Victorian Frosted & Cut Glass Astral Oil Lamp ShadeVictorian Antique Cranberry Etched Floral Oil Gas Lamp ShadeRare Antique 1800 Victorian Kerosene Lamp Light 2 Arm Hanging Bracket Chandelier19thc Victorian Era Miniature Pink Cased Glass Hornet Oil Lamp Antique Victorian Cranberry Oil Lamp Shade 7" Tall X 7 1/4"Antique Victorian Miniature Mt. Washington 1/2 Shade Banquet LampHuge Vintage Hand Made Victorian Lamp Shade With Beautiful Long FringeRare Antique Victorian Aesthetic Movement 1870s Pottery Oil Lamp Light BaseAntique Vintage Victorian Lamp Shade Frame - For Repair - OrnateVintage Witches Cats 3-way Victorian* Claw Foot Hurricane Lamp* Hp* By Peggy G 19thc Antique Victorian Ornate Bronzed Parlor Lamp W Amber Globe- Electric YqzLarge 19th C Antique Victorian Aesthetic Acid Etched Hanging Oil Gas Lamp ShadeVictorian Brass Lamp Light Wall Mounted Option. Unusual Piece. Nice Condition Antique Victorian Figural Eapg Man Goose & Basket Oil Lamp Brass Victor Burner19thc Victorian Era Miniature Ruby + Clear Glass Nutmeg Oil Lamp 1800s Victorian Glass Lamp Shade Globe Butterflies Butterfly Oil Kerosene Gas NrOld Victorian Brass Gas Wall Lamp ArmHandcrafted 3-light Victorian Tiffany Style Stained Glass Pendant Lamp 20" ShadeVictorian Oil Lamp Embossed All-glass Nice!Antique Victorian Horse Carriage Oil Lamp Lantern Light C1870Vintage French Victorian Style Lamp Shade Cream Floral Satin Fringe BottomVtg Victorian Huge Light Lamp Shade Ivory Brocade Fringe Scallop 20.5 W X16" HOne Victorian Puffy Hat Box Lamp- Just Stunning Frosted Reverse PaintedAntique Victorian Oil Lamp Blue Milk GlassVintage Acid Etched Glass Victorian Lamp Shade-uno Fitter Ring-pat'd Dec 24,1912Victorian Lamps (bronze), Set Of Three (3) Vtg Victorian Huge Light Lamp Shade Ivory Brocade Fringe Scallop 20.5 W X16" HAntique Fenton Cranberry Victorian Milk Glass Hurricane Parlor LampHand Painted Roses Pink/milk Glass Table Lamp Light Victorian Shabby N ChicBeautiful Victorian Piano Sconce Wall Lighting Fixtures Candle Lamps C1890 Gorgeous Vintage Victorian Style Hurricane Lamp Gone With The Wind Fenton?Lovely Vintage Victorian Lamp Shade Superb Condition!Vintage Victorian Candle Lamps Clip Lights Christmas Seara Decorative 10 String Antique 19c Victorian Bradley & Hubbard Parlor Oil Lamp * Very Ornate *1-pair Of Victorian Tiffany Style Stained Glass Table Lamps 18" Shade/lit BaseVictorian Decor Boudoir Lamp 26" Tall - Very Unique! Overstock.comWonderful Cast Iron & Metal Hanging Oil Lamp Bracket - VictorianEarly 1900's Antique Victorian Austrian Urn Ewer Pitcher Table Lamp PorcelainGenuine/victorian Capiz Shell Mauve&cream 16 Inch Diam. Living Room Lamp Shade

Recent News: Victorian Lamps

Source: Google News

Putney Bridge Repairs Update
PutneySW15.com, July 22nd

In addition all the ornate Victorian lamp columns have now been removed from the bridge parapet and taken to a specialist firm of restorers who will carry out expert repairs and refurbishments. Temporary lighting has been installed until they are ready...Read more