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    

Vintage Period Victorian Double Student Oil Lamp W/orig. Shades Miller? Tiffany?Antique Victorian Floral Beehive Acid Etched Oil Lamp Shade Circa 1880Antique Victorian Bradley & Hubbard Hanging Parlor Oil Lamp ~no Rsrv~Gwtw Banquet Opalescent Vaseline Glass Oil Lamp Shade Globe ,victorian,4 FitterQueen's Reading Lamp Victorian Kerosene Oil Colza Student Desk Lamp Green ShadeVictorian Red Satin Glass Gone With The Wind Electrified Oil Lamp Parts RepairAntique Victorian Glass Globe Oil Kerosene Lamp W Shade-converted To ElectVictorian Red Cranberry Etched Glass Banquet/kerosene/oil Lamp Shade 4" FitterAntique Victorian Repousse Angel Figural Floral Relief Cast Banquet Oil LampFigural Victorian Banquet Lamp With Cherub And Etched Glass ShadeVictorian Acid Etched Cranberry Tinted Glass Lamp ShadeVictorian Blue Glass Kerosene Oil Paraffin Duplex Lamp, Burner And Oval ChimneySuperb Victorian Antique Railway Pullman Carriage Lamp 1870 Steam Train Engine Antique Victorian Half Dome Library Parlor Hanging Oil Lamp "electrified"prismsA Pristine Condition Identical Pair Of Victorian Milk Glass Peg Oil Lamp FontsGwtw Lamp Shade Hand Painted Floral Kerosene Oil Banquet Parlor Round VictorianSuperb Original Victorian Acid Etched 4" Duplex Glass Oil Lamp Tulip Shade Antique Victorian Brass 22" Oil Lamp With Cranberry Glass ShadeCarved Antique Oil Lamp Wall Holders Victorian Walnut Sconce Candle Stands Shelf Antique Oil Lamp With Table Lamp Victorian MatadorGwtw Tall Lamp Daffodil M&w 1897 Kerosene Oil Banquet Parlor Antique VictorianAntique Victorian Eastlake Revival Brass Hanging Lamp FixtureAntique Victorian Emerald Green 7" Shade Student Oil Kerosene Lamp GwtwVictorian Miniature Porcelain Ormolu Oil Lamp Base & Chimney Signed Kosmos Original Victorian Acid Etched 4" Duplex Glass Oil Lamp Tulip Shade Victorian Kerosene Oil Gwtw Lamp Hand Painted Rose Globe Ball & Claw FeetSuperb Victorian Canister Hand Painted Oil Lamp With Etched Glass ShadeGothic Dragon Oil Lamp- Victorian B&h Bradley Hubbard Table Lamp -electric Too!Victorian Brass Oil Lamp With Glass Chimney - Working OrderAntique Victorian Acid Etched Cranberry Glass Lamp Light Shade 4 1/4" HighAntique 19c Bradley & Hubbard Victorian Ornate Adjustable Piano Oil LampAntique Gwtw Victorian Baroque Banquet Oil Lamp Floral Ruby Cranberry Globe BaseAntique Victorian Cast Iron Double Oil Kero Lamp Swing Arm Bracket SconceAntique 1880s Beautiful Victorian Hanging Oil Lamp Stunning 14" Shade3 7/8" Diameter Brass Smoke Bell - Antique Victorian Hanging Oil Lamp PartVintage Shabby Victorian Floor Lamp W/ Chiffon Rose Fringed Lamp Shade W/crystalVictorian Cranberry Glass Fluted Table Lamp/ceiling Light ShadeAntique Victorian Art Nouveau 7" Shade Student Oil Kerosene Lamp GwtwAntique Victorian Lamp Shade Beads Beadwork As Is For Parts RepairAntique Victorian Acid Etched Cranberry Glass Lamp Light Shade 4" HighAntique Converted Kerosene To Electric Lamp Tall-heavy-telescoping Victorian-oldAntique C1850-1880 Victorian Glass Chimney Set For Miniature Oil Kerosene LampsFive Victorian Brass Oil Lamp Burners - For Spares Or Repair Antique Victorian Hanging Parlor Oil Lamp Shade W/blue Bird ~no Rsrv~Antique Beaded Lace Pair Lovely Victorian Boudoir Vintage Original Lamp ShadesAntique Victorian Hanging Lamp 5 Bulb Chandelier Art Deco Light Fixture 1 Of 3Victorian Ship Lamp Frosted Glass Drops Very Unusual Fully Workng No ReserveAntique Brass Kerosene Lamp Tiny Juno White Shade Small Miniature VictorianVtg Antique Victorian Metal Cast Iron Gothic Ornate Lamp Light Ceiling FixtureN-0174 Two Victorian Cast Iron Oil Lamp Holders, Brackets Double & Single HolderAntique Victorian Cast Iron Oil Lamp Bracket Arm Bridge Light Font Holder Old Antique Victorian Cranberry Glass Hobnail 11" Shade Hanging Library Oil Lamp1-pair Of Victorian Tiffany Style Stained Glass Table Lamps 18" Shade/lit Base Pair Vintage Victorian Floral & Plastic Prisms Fringe Lamp ShadesAntique Cast Metal Floral Victorian Wall Double Electric Lamp Sconces Lot 5 Vintage Victorian Style Parlor Hanging Light/lamp Red Shade & CrystalsJohn Wright Victorian Wall Brackets For Kerosene And Oil Lamps, Cast MetalPair Vintage Victorian Cast Iron Lamp Swivel Wall Brackets W/ Attachments1890's Hand Blown Victorian Christmas Fairy Lamp Light-rare Color!Antique Ornate Small Chandelier Light Lamp Cast Iron Metal Victorian Pale Green

Recent News: Victorian Lamps

Source: Google News

Globetrotting Inspired Gorgeous Guest Bedrooms
Huffington Post, October 8th

With it's alluring details, beautiful mint tone, warm woods and old world feel you just want to snuggle into bed. The armoire in the corner is the crown jewel of the room along with the antique headboard! We also love the small victorian lamp on the...Read more

Putney Bridge reopens to road traffic two weeks ahead of schedule
Evening Standard, September 26th

As part of the works, the bridge has been weatherproofed and resurfaced while its drainage system has been replaced. Repairs were also made to a section of the bridge damaged in a bus crash in July. The Victorian lamp columns have been refurbished with ...Read more

Commuter relief as Putney Bridge set to re-open two weeks ahead of schedule ...
South West Londoner, September 25th

Commuter misery caused by Putney Bridge delays will finally end tomorrow morning as the bridge is set to reopen ahead of schedule. Wandsworth Council have announced that the bridge will officially reopen two weeks ahead of schedule on September 26 ...Read more

Commuter glee as Putney Bridge to open this Friday
getwestlondon, September 23rd

The works, which were set to finish in mid-October, will finish two weeks ahead of schedule when the bridge opens to traffic at 5am on September 26. The essential £1.5 million works have seen the road resurfaced and weatherproofed, with replacements to ...Read more