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Vintage Lighting | Oil Lamps | Candles |Kerosene Lanterns | Gas Lights | History

Updated on July 11, 2013
An early pewter whale oil lamp
An early pewter whale oil lamp
Candles were used in open and enclosed holders
Candles were used in open and enclosed holders
Chandlers hung from ceilings with candle holders
Chandlers hung from ceilings with candle holders
A later version of a whale oil lamp that burned heavy oils such as olive oil.
A later version of a whale oil lamp that burned heavy oils such as olive oil.
A hanging kerosene lamp used in the middle of the room.
A hanging kerosene lamp used in the middle of the room.
Table top kerosene lamp used as task lighting
Table top kerosene lamp used as task lighting
Kerosene hurricane lamp used for outdoor and in barns.
Kerosene hurricane lamp used for outdoor and in barns.
Kerosene lamps were made with all types of fancy shades and globes.
Kerosene lamps were made with all types of fancy shades and globes.
Railroad lamps
Railroad lamps
Before radios railroads depended on oil lamps.  This train displayed green flags and lights to show that it was a single train moving forward.
Before radios railroads depended on oil lamps. This train displayed green flags and lights to show that it was a single train moving forward.
Antique kerosene lamps can be found in most antique stores.
Antique kerosene lamps can be found in most antique stores.
Lamp bases are easy to find, finding ones with the glass globes is difficult.
Lamp bases are easy to find, finding ones with the glass globes is difficult.
New oil lamps can still be purchased at back-to-basic stores like Cottage Craft Works .com
New oil lamps can still be purchased at back-to-basic stores like Cottage Craft Works .com
New Princes oil lamp from Cottage Craft Works.
New Princes oil lamp from Cottage Craft Works.
An older Coleman gas latern
An older Coleman gas latern
Gas wall light used in the Amish can also be purchased at Cottage Craft Works .com
Gas wall light used in the Amish can also be purchased at Cottage Craft Works .com

The kerosene light was used as primary lighting for over 100 years and is still being used today.

Before electricity people depended solely on lighting from candles and oil lamps.

Candles

Candles were made from local available resources such as wale fat, fish oil, tallow and beeswax.

Even cinnamon was boiled down into candle wax.

Candle holders were used as single candle holders, double and triple candle holders and elegant ceiling hung chandlers.

Candles were hard to carry for lighting the path and needed to be protected in glass cases and or carriers equipped with chimneys to prevent them from blowing out.

Many different types and styles of candle holders were made to carry, hang on the wall or to sit on a table.

They consisted of a holder(s) for the candle and a cupped bottom to catch the melting wax as it ran down the sides.

If the holder was too large for the size of candle, the candle was lit and allowed to drip hot wax into the holder and then the candle was placed inside before the wax cooled.

Most of these holders were used with open candles or equipped with a glass chimney for drafty locations.

Candle holder cases were also built to protect the open flame when carrying a candle.

The most common cases were either a four sided glass shaker style box or a box with a glass door.

The four sided glass box had a long dowel rod down one side attached to an elevating base.

The dowel rod was lifted to bring the candle to the top to be lit and then let back down into the glass case to prevent it from blowing out.

The candle box holder with the door on it allowed the door to be opened to light and replace the candle.

The shaker style candle holder were made of wood while the box with the door were mainly made of metal.

Some of these cases had side glasses or a single glass door with a reflector behind the candle.

Oil Lamps

The term oil lamp is somewhat misunderstood between the original oil lamps and the lamps and oils used today.

The original oil lamps used a much thicker based oil than what most see in antique stores or have on hand for emergency use today.

The original old oil lamps are somewhat rare, although we were lucky to find some for this article.

Original oil lamps were also harder to light and to control the flame size.

This often caused them to smoke up the rooms.

The more common oil lamps that are still being sold new or the old antique lamps seen today were designed to use a much thinner petroleum based product such as kerosene.

The original oil lamp utilized a bowl base either open or enclosed, some shaped as a genie or Aladdin lantern, with a wick(s) surrounding it.

In comparison the original oil lamp concept has been somewhat revitalize today with decorative glass bowels filled with scented oils.

A floating wick is then used to provide the flame.

Just picture the bowl as being made of more primitive materials.

The bowls were made of either earthen materials like clay and pottery.

Later they were made of metal. Many were made from pewter.

The types of oil used in the lamps depended on the local area resources for oil.

Olive oil was mostly used in the Mediterranean countries, while fish and wale oil was mostly used in the coastal fishing areas.

Cotton seed oil, mineral oil and nut oil was often used in lamps in the US.

As technology improved the kerosene lamps also known as coal oil lamps were developed.

The kerosene lamps and lanterns held their place in history for nearly 100 years.

They were used from 1850 up into the mid 1900s when many rural homes finally became electrified.

Some of the later whale oil lamps very much resemble the kerosene lamps.

The more modern oil lamps utilized the same type of glass base and probably were an influence on the development of the kerosene lamps.

In fact from a distance they looked just like a kerosene lamp but up close instead of the kerosene burner two hollow tubes emerge out of the lamp reservoir.

The kerosene lamp technology remained basically unchanged.

The lamp consisted of an adjustable cotton wick burner that extended down into the fuel reservoir tank.

The most common wick was a flat piece of braided cotton fibers.

Several manufactures experimented with round cotton rope wicks or a round tube wick all trying to produce more lighting surface for the most brightest lights on the market.

The wick would need to be adjusted to just the right height to produce a bright clean flame.

If the wick was too high the lamp would smoke up the glass chimney.

Kerosene lamps were very dangerous and accounted for most of the home and barn fires.

The tall lamp chimney was easy to catch and knock the lamps onto the floor with the flame burning to quickly ignite the spilled fuel from the broken glass base.

In essence they were a Molotov cocktail, especially with the glass lamp bases.

Many people still use kerosene lamps with lamp oil in place of candles for old charm accent lighting.

Lamp oils can be purchased in different colors and scents.

Others have new and antique kerosene oil lamps for emergency back up in the case of power outages.

Antique kerosene lamps should not be used until they have been checked out closely for cracks other issues that might cause them to leak.

The burner should operate the wick easily without sticking and the proper sized wick should be used to replace an old one.

The chimney should be sized and fitted to the lamp.

It's always good idea to take an antique or new oil lamp outside to be lit for the first time before attempting to light it in the home just in case.

Since glass chimneys break easy they are often hard to find for some of the older antique lamps.

Wicks and chimneys can still be found online as well as new reproduction oil lamps.

Hanging or wall mounted lamps might be safer than a table model.

Restaurants such as the popular Southern and Midwest Cracker Barrel uses new kerosene oil lamps on each table.

Cracker Barrel uses a wooden base holder that fits around the base of the lamp and then is attached to the table top with a dowel rod.

This is to prevent patrons from pulling over the lamps with purses and coats.

Kerosene lamp burners were used in many other types of lamps.

These lamps were used for task lighting on top of a table, hung on the walls, or hung from the ceilings.

Outdoor task lamps also called hurricane lamps were designed to stay lit in high winds and rainy conditions.

Kerosene task lights were also built for specific uses for railroads, buggies and wagons as well as street lights.

Even a rocking wall lamps were designed for ships that would stay level as the ship rolled with the waves.

The term “Lamp Lighter” originated from city workers hired to go along the streets at night to light the street lights.

Kerosene lamps were also designed not only for lighting but as signal devices.

The port and starboard ship signals lamps would be covered with red or green glass.

Railroad lamps would also utilize different color of glass to signal oncoming trains and conductor to engineer communications.

Pressurized Gasoline- Gas Lanterns

Many homes also used pressurized lamps which used white gasoline as the fuel source.

This was not the same gasoline used in automobiles but was known as “white gas”.

Today Coleman fuel is commonly used in these types of pressurized lamps.

As the lamps are pressurized and the burner valve is opened a vapor similar to LP gas burns a bright white light up against a fabric dome known as a mantel.

Most of these type of gasoline lights are used outdoors and are still manufactured by the Coleman company.

Both gasoline and gas lamps are still being used inside the homes and businesses in the Amish communities as well as those living an off-grid live style.

The Amish are more and more converting over to LED lighting powered by solar and wind generator charged battery packs.

This lighting system is much safer and cooler to use during the summer months.

You can pretty well bet that kerosene, gasoline and gas lights will still be used for backup and other lighting.

Pictures courtesy of Cottage Craft Works, http://www.cottagecraftworks.com

Cottage Craft Works is an online store supporting those looking for self sufficiency by supplying old fashioned products made and used in the Amish communities.

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    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      Thanks for this lovely trip into the history of lights. It would be a pity to forget all the beauty which was sometimes created of pure necessity, but sometimes express so much creativity we still feel the power of the designer behind the item.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 4 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      you know, my mom gave me a pair of vintage kerosene lamp for my wedding gift. She said that it is compulsory to have these lamps which signify light and blooming marriage. I love the other vintage lamps too. I like the antique kerosene lamp that you found in antique store. Voted up

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