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.