Information on antique oil lamps

Written by debbie donner
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Information on antique oil lamps
Oil lamps were an improvement upon kerosene lamps. (antique paraffin lamp image by John Hartley from Fotolia.com)

Following the development of kerosene in the 1800s, mass production of lamps began. Oil lamps were made from metal, glass, porcelain and other ceramic materials. Now antiques, oil lamps that used petroleum-based oil were an improvement upon the kerosene lamps that lit the homes of the 19th century. Kerosene lamps were more likely to produce extra smoke, soot and an unpleasant odour. Using oil lamps was also much safer than burning candles.

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History

The idea of burning oil to produce light and heat dates to hundreds of thousands of years ago. Cave dwellers hollowed out stones and burnt moss soaked with oil or grease. The Greeks introduced more complex oil lamps with handles and spouts that would hold oil and wicks. Among antique oil lamps is the Betty lamp, which was widely used in the American Colonies for illuminating homes. The Betty lamp was characterised by a shallow container for the oil or illuminant and a spout at one end in which the wick was placed. Most often, animal grease and fish oil were burnt in Betty lamps, creating a pungent odour and plenty of smoke.

Improvements

In 1740, Benjamin Franklin made an improvement upon the early whale-oil lamps that utilised a single wick, or sometimes a double wick, sticking out of the top. Franklin discovered three times as much light could be obtained if two wicks of a double-wick, whale-oil lamp were placed in such a manner, allowing spacing equal to the width of one wick between them. Thus began the use of the Franklin burner, which was a double-wick, whale-oil lamp modified with the extra spacing between the two wicks. The extra spacing allowed for more oxygen, resulting in better combustion and brighter light.

Chimneys or Shades

When searching for antique oil lamps, many collectors focus on the chimney or shade of each lamp. Earlier glass chimneys were free-form and handblown. The more scarce limited-production chimneys had peddle tops and etched designs and are in more demand by collectors than the later machine-made chimneys. Generally, oil lamp manufacturers made the base and burners of the lamps and acquired the glass shades elsewhere.

Identification

The shades of what are now antique oil lamps were made from an assortment of materials. Milk glass shades were practical and less expensive than other kinds. "Case glass" had the familiar green and white combination; case glass combined two layers of glass--an outer colour and white on the inner layer to reflect more light. A more expensive option was an art glass shade made with satin glass, amberina, mother of pearl and cranberry. Antique oil lamps with art glass shades still command a high price.

Considerations

If you decide to collect antique oil lamps, it is helpful to familiarise yourself with lamp types and common terminology on a website such as that of The International Guild of Lamp Researchers Ltd., which is linked in the Resources section. With the vast array of oil lamp designs and materials available, you can build a substantial collection in a short time. Flea markets, antique shops, yard sales, auctions and online dealers provide an abundance of antique oil lamps from which to choose. On websites such as AntiquesCove.biz, you can find a healthy offering of lamps for under £65 each and sometimes £32 or less (in 2010).

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