History of Kerosene Oil Lamps
History of Kerosene Oil Lamps
Oil lamps have been a primary source of lighting for centuries. Although they were generally inefficient and difficult to store, these lamps gave light to a formerly dark world. Medical doctor and geologist Abraham Gesner began distilling coal to produce a clear fluid by 1846. He discovered that this clear fluid produced a bright yellow flame when used to power a traditional oil lamp. This yellow flame was much brighter than any flame produced by oil, so he aptly named this new liquid kerosene after the Greek word for “wax oil,” “keroselaion.”
The first modern kerosene lamp was invented by Polish inventor Ignacy Łukasiewicz. In 1856, Łukasiewicz built the world’s first oil refinery and later discovered that kerosene could be extracted from petroleum. This discovery made kerosene much more affordable. After opening his first oil well, Łukasiewicz invented the modern kerosene lamp in 1853. At the same time, American businessman Robert Dietz and his brother patented the first functional flat wick burner that was specially designed for kerosene. Both kinds of kerosene lamps were conveniently portable, with containers for kerosene and wicks or mantles for light sources, protected with glass globes or tubes.
There were three kinds of kerosene lamps: lamps with flat wicks, lamps with tubular wicks, and lamps with mantles. Lamps with flat wicks are traditionally made of cotton, with one side submerged in a kerosene container and a glass chimney for protection. While hot air rises above, cold air is fed to the flame. Central draught kerosene lamps work the same way as flat wick lamps, except that they have tubular wicks. Tubular wick gives more light and requires a bigger glass chimney to create the draught needed for the lamp to burn properly. Mantle lamps feature a net made that is made of fabric with thorium or other rare-earth salts. From above the flame, the mantle heats up to generate brighter light. Dead flame lamps are another variant of the flat wick lamp, except that they are not portable.
After the American Civil War
Kerosene eventually replaced whale oil and revolutionized artificial lighting. In May of 1862, John H. Irwin created the first design for a coil oil lamp to be used with coal oils or other similar hydrocarbons. Coal oil initially emitted a smoky flame until it was refined into kerosene. This refinement allowed lamps to be used indoors. As a result, kerosene led to an economic and cultural revolution. Improved lighting led to improved productivity as factory workers labored on into the night. Improved lighting also meant that public spaces could extend hours of operation, which made oyster houses, theatres, museums, and shops more readily available to consumers.
It wasn’t until January of 1868 that John H. Irwin invented and patented the hot-blast design, which was also known as the “tubular lantern.” Such lamps were designed in a way that hot air was collected from above through a metal chimney and directed through metal tubes to the bottom of the flame to make the flame burn brighter. Thereafter, a cold-blast design was invented. This design differed from the hot-blast design, because cold air was drawn in from around the top of the globe before being fed through metal tubes to the flame. As a result, the lamp was able to produce a brighter light than the hot-blast counterpart, because cold air contains ample oxygen to support the combustion process.
Ushering in the Era of Petroleum
In the 19th century, gas lighting was beyond the economic reach of most American citizens. They relied on lamps that were fueled by fat, camphene, or whale oil. However, oil refineries were abundant by the start of the Civil War, with oil wells producing kerosene in areas such as Pennsylvania and Ontario. Clean-burning kerosene went on to become a sought-after lighting method for lighthouses, locomotives, ships, streets, and so much more. Stoves and heaters were powered by kerosene, and farmers were able to increase their yields due to the prolonged ability to work outside.
Though Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879, only half of all homes in the United States had electric power by 1925. Kerosene slowly took the backseat to electricity over the course of several decades. We might often think of kerosene with nostalgia, but it is estimated that in many homes in countries throughout the world still rely on kerosene for cooking, lighting, and heating. Kerosene has transformed into a component of jet fuel and was once used as fuel for rocket engines made by NASA. Even now, some homes depend on kerosene lamps for illumination during power outages or catastrophic events such as floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. If you have any questions about this article or would like to learn more about our replacement parts for kerosene lamps, please contact Antique Lamp Supply to speak with a customer service representative today.
Vintage P&A Eagle Burner Pedestal Finger Oil Lamp
The Plume and Atwood Manufacturing Company was organized in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1869, under the name, Holmes, Booth and Atwood. Soon after its formation the firm bought some brass mills in Thomaston and Waterbury. Due to a legal battle over the name they incorporated in 1880 under Plume and Atwood Manufacturing Company, producing a full line of lamps and lamp trimmings for their company and also other manufacturers. From 1871 to 1912 the company was listed as the assignee for at east 62 lighting patents. They relocated to Thomaston, Connecticut in 1955, remaining there until the late 1950s, when Risdon Manufacturing Company of Danbury, Connecticut took over. Risdon continued to produce P&A burners well into the 1960s. Landers, Frary & Clark, from New Britain, Connecticut bought the fabricating division of P&A, which was subsequently purchased by the J. W. Williams Company, New York. General Electric Companys Housewares Division acquired J. W. Williams in 1965.
- Reference #:
- Furniture & Furnishings
- Antiques (approx100yrs)
- circa 1955
(Width x Height X Depth)
- 8.00 x 16.50 x
- Glass & Brass
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Antique oil lamp identification can be a bit tricky, considering there are many reproduction antique lamps on the market. Oil lamps were the primary source of light in many homes before electricity, and they have a beautiful style that is prized by collectors today. Learn how to tell if an oil lamp is antique and how to identify different types of oil and kerosene lamps.
Shedding Light on the Subject of Oil and Kerosene Lamps
The difference between oil lamps and kerosene lamps is minimal; lamp oil is simply a cleaner burning fuel that serves the same purpose as kerosene. It is important to note that you should always choose fuels approved for lamps, since not all types of oil and kerosene are appropriate. Although these lamps come in many different styles, most oil and kerosene lamps have a basic formula that hasn't changed much over the years. These are the parts of an oil lamp:
- Reservoir or bowl - These lamps use a reservoir or bowl to hold fuel. There will be a way to fill this reservoir.
- Burner - This portion of the lamp sits above the reservoir and has an adjustable wick that extends down into the bowl. The wick soaks up the fuel.
- Chimney - This glass protector contains the flame of the lamp. In some lamps, there is also a shade.
How Can You Tell if an Oil Lamp Is Antique?
Because oil lamps are beautiful and still useful today, many companies create modern reproductions. This can make antique kerosene lamp identification challenging, but according to Real or Repro, there are several clues that can help you tell an antique oil lamp from a modern piece.
Use a Blacklight
Hold a blacklight next to the lamp in a dark room. New oil lamps are held together with glue, and new glue fluoresces in blacklight. Old lamps have glass parts that are fused, so they don't glow in blacklight.
Examine the Hardware
Although it's not a foolproof method of antique kerosene lamp identification, hardware can offer a clue about whether a lamp is new or old. Check to see if bolts are threaded for their entire length or only the portion necessary for attaching the pieces of the lamp. A bolt that is entirely threaded is more likely to be new.
Check for Plaster
While many new lamps use hardware that looks very much like the original pieces and may even be made from the same molds, how the hardware is attached will differ between new an old lamps. New lamps use glue, while many older lamps use plaster to fill in any spaces between the lamp body and the hardware. Carefully examine these joints to determine whether they contain plaster.
Important Factors in Antique Oil Lamp Identification
Once you know your oil lamp is a genuine antique, there's still work to do to find out more about it. These are some factors to consider to identify the age and manufacturer of your antique oil lamp.
Antique Lamp Styles
Antique kerosene and oil lamps come in many different styles and types. Knowing the style of your lamp can help you determine whether it was made by a specific manufacturer or at a certain time. You may have one of the following:
- Antique oil lamps with handles - Some lamps were designed to be carried around the house or property. You can identify this type of lamp by its carrying handle or finger loop.
- Hanging antique oil lamps - Other lamps have a loop for hanging from a nail or on a wall. This loop allows the lamp to hang level.
- Antique kerosene table lamps - Table lamps vary in size, but they have a wider base that allows them to sit upright on a table.
- Antique wall lamps - Wall lamps often have a reflector that would lie against the wall and reflect light back into the room.
- Lamps with shades - Some lamps have glass shades that add to their beauty and value.
Lamp Burner Types
According to The Lamp Works, there are six primary types of antique oil lamp burners. Being able to identify the burner lets you know what kind of fuel your lamp uses, how old it may be, and other helpful hints. Here are the six types of oil lamp burners:
- Prong burners - Used with kerosene and oil lamps, these burners have four prongs that hold the glass chimney in place.
- Coronet burners - Also used with kerosene and oil lamps, these burners have a coronet or crown-shaped piece of hardware that holds the chimney.
- Argand burners - This type of burner had many holes to allow air to circulate and facilitate burning.
- Central draft burners - Similar to an Argand burner, this type of burner allowed greater air circulation, this time through an intake tube in the center and a perforated metal surface.
- Whale oil burners - These burners had two long tubes that held the wick and extended down into the reservoir, allowing the heat from the lamp to melt the whale oil.
- Burning fluid burners - In these burners, tubes extend out and upwards from a plate. Tubes are usually made of brass.
Colors of Antique Oil Lamps
Although many lamps are made of clear glass, you'll also see them in a variety of beautiful colors. It's important to note that this is another way to determine whether your lamp is actually an antique. Some specific models only came in clear or certain colors, so if you see one in a color that wasn't produced, you know it's a reproduction. These are some of the colors of genuine antique oil lamps:
- Green glass
- Clear glass
- Amber glass
- White milk glass
- Amethyst glass
- Red glass
- Cobalt glass
Oil Lamp Maker's Marks
One essential tool in learning how to identify antique oil lamps is knowing where to find the maker's marks. Like many antiques, identification marks can be one of the best ways to tell what you have and how old it is. You may find glass identification marks on the lamp, but the burner hardware is the place to find real answers. On oil lamps, the marks are usually found on the button that allows you to wind the wick. The end of that button usually has a stamp. According to Old Copper, these are a few of the most notable:
- Aladdin - This brand used different maker's marks, but they almost always say "Aladdin" somewhere in them.
- Beacon Light - For this brand, you'll often see the name in block letters inside a circle.
- Erich & Graetz - This unique maker's mark features two dragons facing one another.
- Rochester Lamp Company - This New York-based company stamped its lamp winder buttons with "Rochester" or "New Rochester."
Oil Lamp Patent Numbers and Dates
One excellent way to establish the history of your antique oil lamp is by finding a patent number or date. This is usually on the winder button, but it might also be on the another spot on the burner or base of your lamp. When you find a number of a US-made lamp, look it up on at the US Patent and Trademark Office. This can tell you how old your oil lamp may be.
How to Tell if an Oil Lamp Is Valuable
Most antique oil lamps sell for between $25 and $150, but some examples may be especially valuable. Lamps with cut crystal shades, beautiful details, unusual colors, and other features can bring the most at auction. Additionally, lamps in excellent condition will almost always sell for more than those with missing parts, cracks, and other damage. The best way to tell if an oil lamp is valuable is to compare it to recently sold lamps that are similar. Here are some examples of recent sales:
Enjoy the Beauty of Antique Oil Lamps
Sometimes, the easiest way to identify an antique is to look at pictures of similar items. You can view photos of antique oil lamps to see some of the styles, colors, and brands mentioned here. You can also research different types of antique lamps to see if yours is among them. Knowing more about your antique oil lamp lets you enjoy its beauty even more.
© 2021 LoveToKnow Media. All rights reserved.
It was not uncommon for burners to be replaced on lamps over time. As burners became worn or broken, they were often replaced with any burner available at the time. Many early lamps are not found with an appropriate period burner. This is particularly true of fluid burning and whale oil lamps. Many fluid and whale oil lamps were "converted" to burn kerosene, and the original burners set aside. Early, and correct period, burners add significant value to a lamp. A decision to purchase a particular lamp should include some consideration to the overall completeness and correctness of the component parts. A reasonably priced lamp with an early burner would be an excellent buy. Conversely, a pricey overlay lamp with an awkward-looking Queen Anne burner (not appropriate for the lamp) would merit further consideration, as the burner would account for roughly $10.00 of the purchase price. The same lamp with an early Jones burner (easily worth $75.00 or more), would be a more attractive purchase, all other factors considered being equal. In the end, the decision to buy a lamp might be made without regard to the trimmings - it all depends upon the tastes and collecting habits of the collector.
Make sure the chimney is clean. Dirty chimneys can cause uneven heating that could cause the chimney to crack, or even shatter.
Wick maintenance is important. Keep the wick clean and trimmed to produce a nice, even flame. It will produce a better light, and provide a more even heat distribution, especially to the sides of the chimney.
When you initially light the lamp, keep the flame low. This will allow the chimney to gradually warm up. After a few minutes, the flame can be adjusted to the desired height. Remember that rapid changes in temperature are the enemy.
Make sure that chimneys that are oval-shaped in cross-section are aligned properly in relation to the flame. The long axis of the chimney should be parallel to the wick.
Be certain that the chimney does not fit into the burner too tightly. This is especially true with Aladdin chimneys which "twist & lock" into the gallery, and lip chimneys which are secured with a set screw. Tighten the screw just tightly enough to secure the chimney in place without over-tightening. As the chimney is heated, it expands - it needs a little room to accomplish this.
It is always a good idea to carry a small (albiet strong) magnet with you when you're in the marketplace. Brass, bronze, and copper are non-ferrous. That is to say thay contain no iron and a magnet will not stick to them. Lots of old lamps have been painted over at some point in their long life. A magnet can help identify the underlying metal, or at least rule out some of the possibilities. I have found many hanging lamp frames and bracket lamps covered in thick, gold or black paint. Some of the frames are merely painted steel (or cast iron) and a quick check with your magnet will identify this. Others could be solid brass. You will also find many brass-plated lamp components. This could have been done to add strength or just to save on manufacturing costs. Check plated items carefully for excessive wear. Some collectors prefer the "rustic" look of a worn finish, but if your intent is to polish the item, the worn places will become painfully evident.
"Sick glass" is often characterized by cloudiness or a light etching or staining of the surface. If this condition is a result of accumulated dirt and grime, or minor mineral deposits, it can often be cleaned. More severe conditions cannot be corrected by cleaning. If the surface of the glass has been abraded or eaten away by chemical process over the years, you're probably going to have to live with it. There are a score of "home remedies" that work to some extent or another, but you really cannot repair this damage to the glass surface by cleaning it. Some of these remedies can actually make the condition worse! Also beware of "oily" glass when you purchase it. Buy from a reputable dealer. Don't be afraid to ask that the item be cleaned before you buy it. If the dealer refuses, it may be best to pass on the item. Unscrupulous dealers occasionally hide the condition by lightly oiling the surface of the glass. It looks swell until you take it home and clean it. Once it dries, the cloudiness magically appears!
Removing a damaged lamp collar can either be a quick and easy job or a complex, delicate operation. The key factor lies in what type of compound was used to attach your particular collar. Most early collars were affixed with plaster-of-paris or similar compound. Most of these are old, brittle and porous. In this case, all that is often required is a day or two soaking in water to soften the plaster. Simply invert the lamp in a container of warm water and wait. I often use dental picks to help loosen the plaster from inside the collar and if the collar is split, I poke around in through the crack at the plaster beneath.
Sometimes this method isn't successful. If the collar has been repaired in more recent times with epoxy or other "hi-tech" adhesives, they will not be affected by soaking in water. If you are daring, you may try to cut the collar into smaller pieces with a small metal cutting blade (by hand - don't use a reciprocating or jig saw as they cause too much vibration) or a high-speed hobby tool (Dremel�, RotoZip�) with a fine cutting wheel. With a steady hand and some luck, you can slice through the thick portions of the collar, such as the shoulder of the collar, then carefully peel away the smaller parts like you were opening up an old-style sardine can using needle-nosed hobby/craft pliers.
Extreme care must be taken when using any mechanical means so as not to damage the glass fount beneath - you always run the risk of shattering the fount. Whatever method you choose, be patient and use caution. Protect the lamp and yourself - wear eye protection when appropriate for the task.
There are a couple of products which can safely be used to re-attach lamp parts such as collars for burners and filler caps, and to attach founts to their stems. While I generally use regular Plaster of Paris, ceramic tile grout (latex) has been recommended a number of times, but I have never tried it. Most collectors/restorers do not condone the use of epoxies and other "space age" adhesives as they are generally more permanent than the other options, and require more aggressive means to remove them, should the need arise.
Prepare the mating surfaces by removing all traces of old plaster and clean them thoroughly. Allow them to dry. Assemble everything you'll need, including some masking tape which can be used to hold the collar in position while it dries.
For plaster attachment, I mix a thick paste of plaster and water. Since this is quite white in color, you may wish to tint the plaster with ordinary water color paints - yellow and a bit of brown will give the plaster an aged look - child's water colors work well as you don't need much pigment to tint the batch. I don't have a magic formula, so you'll have to experiment a bit to get the color to suit your preference.
Apply a liberal amount of plaster to the inside of the collar, or to the neck of the lamp, or both. Carefully mate the two pieces together. Excess plaster will likely ooze out which you can wipe away with a damp cloth. Position the collar carefully so that it is both centered and level. Clean up any additional ooze, especially any that may have gotten onto the threaded portion of the collar - a couple of water-dampened cotton swabs work well for this. Finally, tape the collar in place and let it dry thoroughly. Once dried, you're ready for business!
In many cases, this is up to the personal preferences of the owner. The important thing to remember is that many old lamps were manufactured and sold with antiqued finishes and factory-applied patina. This is particularly true of Arts and Crafts and Tiffany-style lamps. Removal of the factory patina on such pieces can diminish the value easily 50-60% or more.
If you are unsure if a finish is an intended result of the manufacturing process or just the natural darkening and mellowing of the finish over time, consult an expert in the field. Once you rule out factory finishes, the ball is on your court. If you like the rich, mellow look of aged brass or copper, then enjoy the lamp as it is. If you are after the "just out of the box" shiny finish, then you may polish your lamp or have it professionally stripped and burnished. If you want to preserve the appearance, you may wax or lacquer the item to prevent it from tarnishing for years to come.
There are many sources in print and on the internet regarding the care and conservation of metal artifacts - take your time and do some research.
Metal restoration is a tricky and complex process. Small dings and dents are signs of use and normal for any item with age. They add character and often tell a story about the item, altought this history is seldom documented. While most collectors would love to find pieces in pristine, unused condition, the reality is that because these were utilitarian items, they were used - not intended for display.
Dings and dents can be removed with metalworking tools - hammers, spoons and dollies, but it takes a great deal of skill to remove a dent and "get it right." For small, tight areas, it may be necessary to fabricate your own tools. Most dents are the result of a sharp blow to the object - often from being dropped. These dents are often crisp and clean and while they can be distracting, are often less obvious than a poorly restored piece. Novice dent removal often leaves the item in a worse aesthetic condition - the area having a stippled or dimpled effect, rather than the smooth appearance that had been the intent.
If you are serious about restoring the lamp yourself, I recommend that you practice and experiment on some scrap items before you tackle your lamp.
If you have any questions or suggestions for future tips, please email us.
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