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    

A Good Victorian Microscope Oil Lamp By Swift & Son, London. BrassAntique Bradley & Hubbard Hanging Brass Oil/kerosene Lamp Blue Crystal VictorianVictorian Cranberry Opal Hand Painted Duplex Kerosene Oil Lamp, Burner, Chimney19thc Antique Victorian Bronze Figural Greek Lady & Oil Lamp Sculpture Statue(2) Antique Gothic Victorian Winged Griffin Dragon Brass Figural Gas Lamp SconceRare Victorian Royal Doulton Lambeth Stoneware Pate-sur-pate Oil Lamp, Working!Good Quality Victorian Blown & Faceted Glass Oil Lamp With Hinks Duplex Burner Superb Original True Yellow Oil Lamp Shade. Believed Victorian.Victorian Duplex Kerosene Paraffin Table Opal Glass Oil Lamp Burner And ChimneyUnusual Victorian Etched Oil Lamp ShadeAntique Wall Hang Victorian Oil Lamp Northwind Fancy Brass Scroll Shade England Good Quality Victorian Oil Lamp With Youngs Burner & Striking Pale Blue Font 19thc Victorian Rubina Glass Oil Lamp Smoke Bell Diamond OpticUnique 19th C Victorian Wall Mount Glass Oil Lamp W Bracket Complete Pat. 1867Victorian Hanging Library Parlor Kerosene Oil Lamp Frame For Parts RestorationVintage Victorian 6 Panel Slag Leaded Glass Beaded Brass Lamp ShadeVictorian Duplex 6.5 Inch High Acid Etched Oil Lamp Shade LovelyBrass Victorian Parlor Gwtw Kerosene Oil Lamp B&h For Restoration And Or PartsAntique Victorian Vapo Cresolene Miniature Oil Lamp Incense Burner Aroma Therapy10 Antique Vintage Amber Glass Prisms For Victorian Hanging Kerosene Oil LampC1880s Victorian Decorated Burmese Art Glass Fairy Lamp Skirt Webb Mt WashingtonAntique Late 19thc Victorian Bronzed Spelter Rembrandt Artist Gas Lamp FixturePr Ornate Victorian Oil Lamp Font Mounting Brackets W/ Stag, Vines & Swags Fs CoGenuine Victorian 4" Duplex Acid Etched Cranberry Glass Oil Lamp Shade No 2/2Beautiful Victorian Ceramic European Owl Oil Lamp Kosmos Brenner Burner 1880sBrass Wall Lamp, Victorian Vintage, Oil Or Electric Conversion. Huge 36" Antique The New Juno Banquet Lamp Reticilated Victorian Ball ShadeAntique Victorian Kerosene Oil Lamp 7" Glass Shade For Aladdin Rayo B&h StudentVictorian Brass Kerosene Oil Hanging Store Lamp FontAntique Victorian Lady & Gentleman Bisque Figurine Table Lamps *exquisite*germanJ Hinks & Son Victorian Oil Lamp Base Milk Glass Font Brass Base An Antique Victorian (c1880) Oil Lamp With Ruby Red Glass Font & FunnelCastle Creek Victorian Table Lamp Tiffany Style Glass Light Art Deco Bronzed New1800's Victorian Silver Cut Etched Hand Blown Glass Ball Shade Oil Kerosene Lamp(5)shabby Victorian White Rose Beaded Candelabra, Chandelier/ Sconce Lamp ShadesAntique Cherub Lamp Metal Shabby Chic Victorian French?Antique Oil Lamp Pulley With Chain For Parts Or Refurbishing Victorian Times Stunning Victorian Cranberry Oil Lamp Shade (damaged)Victorian Style Extra Large Lamp Shade " Crochet Satin Pink And Floral "Book: Oil Lamps 3 Victorian Kerosene Lighting 1860-1900 Price GuideBrass Victorian Hanging Library Parlor Lamp Motor For Kerosene Oil Lamp PartsAntique 1880’s Eapg Victorian Pattern Glass Oil Lamp Tall Square Column Base YqzAntique Victorian 1890 B&h Bradley Hubbard Brass Banquet Oil Lamp Rare Antique Victorian Egyptian Revival Snake Oil Lamp Antique Victorian Gone With The Wind Parlor Lamp Roses American Yellow Rose 1890Vintage Victorian Oil Lamp Swinger Pull Boy On Swing Germany Porcelain BisqueEarly 1900's Cast Iron Porch Light Sconce Antique Ornate Victorian Lamp Fixture Gwtw Large Vintage Gone With The Wind Hurricane Victorian Parlor Table LampAntique Victorian Cast Iron Oil/kerosene Lamp Wall Bracket New Large 12 Arm Vintage Victorian Glass Crystal Chandelier Light Lamp Ivory BigAntique Victorian French Oil Lamp Marble Column Rococo Gilt Base Matador 15Vintage Victorian Blue Marbled Porcelain 2 Handle Urn Courting Couple Table LampAntique Victorian E Miller Brass Kerosene Oil Lamp Font Flame SpreaderVintage Victorian Lady Bradley Style Fabric Doll Bedroom Lamp Pink Lace DressAntique Spelter Figural Table Lamp Base, Victorian Boy, Old Paint, Cast Metal Antique Victorian Plume & Atwood Brass Kerosene Oil Lamp Font Flame SpreaderAntique Victorian Bradley & Hubbard Brass Kerosene Oil Lamp Font Flame SpreaderOld Victorian Lamp Made Out Of Copper / BrassAntique Victorian Primitive Copper Kerosene Lamp Lantern Eagle Font 1870s Vtg19th C. Miniature Victorian Orange & White Swirl Art Glass Oil Lamp

Recent News: Victorian Lamps

Source: Google News

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

An enduring Rose. Rabbit. Lie. keeps the experiment going
Las Vegas Weekly, 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

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

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

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

Victorian lamp-posts removed from Bristol suburb and placed in more ...
Telegraph.co.uk, June 4th

Victorian lamp-posts removed from Bristol suburb and placed in more fashionable areas. Residents in a city suburb are furious because their Victorian cast iron lamp-posts have been removed and are to be put up in more fashionable areas. By Richard Savill...Read more