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    

Lg 1800s Victorian Gwtw Ball Shade Enamel Pansy Oil Kerosene Lamp Parlor BanquetPlaymobil 5340 Victorian Dollhouse Street Lamp Light New MibVery Old Victorian Acid Etched Oil Lamp Shade. Two Small Bubble Faults.Antique Victorian Brass Hinks Lever Oil Lamp Phelps & Evinton ManchesterAntique Spelter French Banquet Cherub Lamp Base Part Nouveau Figurine VictorianAntique Old Victorian Cast Iron Oil Lamp Hanger Bracket Wall Mount Bracket NiceAntique Victorian Figural Banquet Oil Kerosene Lamp Base With Font As Found.Antique Victorian(circa 1880)corinthian Column Oil Lamp-emerald Green FontVictorian Bridgeport Brass Lincoln Log C F Spencer Kerosene Oil Student LampAn Excellent Beautifully Cut, Victorian Chunky Cut Glass Oil Lamp Font.Antique Banquet Lamp Brass & Onyx Cherubs Bradley & Hubbard Era Style VictorianAntique Old Victorian Cast Iron Oil Lamp Hanger Bracket Wall Mount Bracket OnlyAntique Old Vintage Victorian Oil Lamp With Glass Shade13.7/8 Victorian Brass Parlor Hanging Kerosene Oil Lamp Shade Hand Painted GlassVintage Victorian Kosmos Brenner Blue Drape Oil Lamp W/marble Brass BaseVintage Retro Ceramic Oil Lamp - Glass Antique Victorian - Converted Electric Victorian Large Carriage Lamp 19th Century Original Brass SteelRuby Red Glass,lamp Shade,victorian Oil Lamp ShadeAntique 19c Victorian Parlor Oil Lamp Etched Glass Shade Wrought Iron Juno LampVintage Gothic Victorian Figural Brass Putti Cherub Angel Wall Sconce Light LampAntique 1872 Cast Iron Victorian Ceiling Lamp Hook / Hanging Plant / HardwareAntique 19c Victorian Parlor Oil Lamp Glass Shade Wrought Iron Bradley Hubbard Victorian Art Nouveau Beaded Satin Glass Shade Antique Ladies Figural LampVictorian Milk Glass Hanging Oil Lamp Match Holder "for Burnt Matches"Chloe Lighting Ch18780vg18-fl2 Liaison Victorian Floor Lamp 2-light 63in New*Vintage Antique Victorian Student Lamp W Floral Hand Painted ShadeLamp Shade Antique Glass Bead Fairy Glass Beads Miniature Victorian Miniature Vintage? Victorian Style Lamp Shade Fringe Cream Ivory Colored Flowered DesignAntique Victorian Wall Lamps/sconcesAntique Victorian Eapg Ruby Etched Peg & Milk Glass Oil Kerosene Pedestal LampVintage Amber Glass Hurricane Lamp 3-way Lighting Hand Painted Victorian LampVintage Tall Red Lamp Finial Victorian Era12" Victorian Figurine Ceramic/porcelain Electric Table Top Lamps/occupied JapanStyle At Home With Margie Beaded Victorian Damask Table Lamp Turquoise NewVictorian Bohemian Hand Blown Thumbprint Glass Whale Oil Lamp Brass Marble BaseCottage Chic Large Victorian Style Ivory Satin Brocade Fringe Lamp Shade DoudoirAntique 1880's Victorian Eastlake Cast Iron Plant Oil Lamp Ceiling Hook HardwareBrinn's Of Pittsburgh Vintage Victorian Rose Oil Lamp. Made In JapanCastle Creek Victorian Table Lamp Tiffany Style Glass Light Art Deco Bronzed NewRare Blue Enamel Porcelain Victorian Gas General Store Parlor Light Fixture LampAbsolutely Original Victorian Veritas Bayonet Fit Oil Lamp Burner. Needs CleanVintage Pair Porcelain Victorian Man & Woman Figurine LampsDollhouse Miniature Victorian Table Lamp Light Lighting White Tiffany ShadeVictorian English Made Registfred Marx 32 Old Oil Lamp, White Globe And BurnerAntique Victorian Porcelain Figural Cupid Cherub W/ Wings Parlor Lamp + ShadeVictorian Lamp Part, Hanging / Wall Lamp Font Antique Eapg Victorian Decorated Oil Lamp Stand / Embossed Daisys / Item # 339Vtg Pair Antique Victorian Ornate Design Cast Iron Hanging Lamp Plant Wall HooksVintage Cast Iron Victorian Swing Arm Oil Lamp Holder With Reflector Bracket

Recent News: Victorian Lamps

Source: Google News

Mixed views on £3m. renovation of Burnley's main thoroughfare
Burnley Express, May 23rd

The “Gormless”, a reconstruction of a Victorian lamp-post which currently stands in the centre of St James's Street, will also be removed. Coun. Frost said: “I've no objection to work being done if it's going to be an improvement. There has been a lamp...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

Rent in Loja, Ecuador's Undiscovered Colonial City for $300 a Month
International Living, February 6th

The sparkling clean avenues are lined with Victorian lamp posts and scrolled metal street signs. And grandiose churches of Gothic and Romanesque architecture stand opposite the bright pastels of colonial-style office buildings. It was almost too...Read more

An enduring Rose. Rabbit. Lie. keeps the experiment going
Las Vegas Weekly (blog), December 9th

Before things escalated to the bathtub last Friday night, Neighbor Boy and I were greeted by a pale juggler draped on a table next to weathered books and a Victorian lamp. “Flights of performances” remain vital to Rose. Rabbit. Lie.'s concept...Read more

Steve Duin: Dave Mesirow, in memoriam, and the Portland Night High School
OregonLive.com, December 9th

"Heartbreaking," Turene, the program director, told me at the time: "It's like the district is trying to make everything contemporary and we're the nice little Victorian lamp in the corner. It just doesn't fit the decor, so this year we'll put it in...Read more

Harrogate Borough Council supports Civic Society's call to have towns ...
Harrogate News, November 12th

Harrogate Borough Council has put its support behind Harrogate Civic Society's campaign to have a number of the town's historic cast iron lamp posts protected by having them listed. Many of the historic lamp posts were first used in about 1849, before...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

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