Spotlight shines on early lanterns


Recently we passed an illuminated barn and I was reminded of my younger days when barn work in early morning before daylight and hours after sunset was accomplished by portable lanterns. The illuminating devices were made in many sizes and shapes.

Colonists in the 1600s relied on fireplaces and a few well-tended lamps, i.e. torches, rushlights and grease lamps.

In the 1700s, as materials became available, candles became the main source of illumination, but were a source of only faint light.

Because drafts would extinguish the flame of candles, lanterns were devised to protect this problem.

Kerosene development.

The 1800s witnessed the development and use of kerosene as lantern fuel.

The early lanterns were usually made of pierced tin-plated steel sheets. If transparent parts were included, thinly worked cow’s horn was employed. Later, mica and glass replaced the horn.

Until after the mid-1800s, lanterns were crude in appearance, shaped with whatever materials were convenient or available.

The pierced lanterns were in use for quite a long time until well into the first of the 1900s.

There were candle-illuminated lanterns of unusual shapes. Some were tin with glass globes, a few globes were spherical that did not have wire hoops to retain the globe, others had straight sides with tin frames and glass plates, usually four to six in number.

Paul Revere lanterns.

In the early 1800s, almost all outbuildings in America possessed a round lantern with a conical top, with small holes punched in design on its tin sides. These lanterns were given the reputable name “Paul Revere.” Undoubtedly the lantern was actually what is called a “fire carrier.”

The so-called “Paul Revere” lanterns that are familiar were made as late as 1910. They’re quaint, but almost entirely useless when used as a lighting device.

When the kerosene lanterns were introduced, clear constant light was finally available, quite satisfactory to read by after sunset.

Due to sediments in kerosene, to ensure clean oil in the lamp, the lady of the house would place a piece of wool yarn in the oil reservoir onto which the impurities would cling.

Carriage lanterns.

Attractive lamps or lanterns were used on carriages for traveling. This lamp burned oil and typically used a round or flat wick.

At first, attempts were made to use the Argand lamp, but these were subjected to drafts extinguishing the flame. In the beginning, wax candles were used in carriage lamps due to their cleanliness, although their illumination was of lower quality than oil.

The Argand lamp used a hollow wick of small diameter and was difficult to keep burning efficiently. A flat wick, well trimmed, with a glass chimney, and good oil, such as watch-makers used in the early 1800s, made a more economical lamp for carriage use.

The wax candle in carriage lamps was contained in tin tubes, as the candle burned, a spiral spring forced it upward. In the carriages of the upper class, the lamps were the most ornamental, consisting of circular boxes of glass in which wax candies were used.

Lamps on traveling carriages were square and had wooden slides to be placed on the glass windows during the day, to eliminate damage. Sometimes they had reflectors.

The railroad lanterns are a different category than the domestic lamps and lanterns – and that’s subject for another column.

To my personal interest there is nothing, as far as lights are concerned, more appealing than candles or a well-managed kerosene lamp.


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