Antique Spotlight: Oil Lamps

It’s incredible to think about and be reminded of how far humans have come since the days of cavemen and hunter-gatherers. From the discovery of fire to the commonplace utilization of electricity, we have always found a way to create light and now we can look back and revel at our previous modes of illumination. For those of you interested, we’re going to take a closer look at (kerosene) oil lamps: they’re history and how to collect them…. Read along to find out more!

Antique Spotlight: Oil Lamps
from: Jimmer Young: "Some of my oil lamps, have been collecting for forty years and we use them here on windy old Vancouver Island, BC...brrrr."

History

 An oil lamp is basically any bowl or vessel that contains grease or oil and a type of wick—sometimes an absorbent rag. Once lit, the wick gives off continuous heat and light. In ancient civilizations, lamps were made of baked clay or terracotta, but as people learned more, lamps became more sophisticated. The use of iron or pewter saucers became common in the Colonial era; some lamps even had handles, chambers to hold the wick, and compartments to catch oil drippings so they didn’t fall on the floor.

In the late 1700s, Aime Argand, a chemist from Switzerland, found a way to create lamp without a freestanding wick, and it is perhaps that version of the lamp that people are most familiar with today. Argand’s lamp has a burner (which holds the actual flame) and a glass chimney for all the fumes and “exhaust” to escape. While pewter and iron lamps were incredibly functional, design aesthetics began to change again once the Victorian era came around (starting in 1837 when Queen Victoria took the throne) and Argand-style, vase-shaped glass lamps started being made.

Similar to popular house ware, glass lamps were inexpensive to manufacture and gave people a wider selection in terms of choosing a lamp that best fit their personal taste. It was shortly into the Victorian era (1849) that kerosene started being used instead of whale or canola oil—because it didn’t rot or smell when burning—and that, combined with the new and wildly popular design, caused the sale and use of these lamps to skyrocket.

Unfortunately for the kerosene lame, the period of its fame and glory was situated directly in the middle of the Industrialization era, when huge strides were being made in terms of social, economic and technological advancements. The use of kerosene was a great development, but once electricity and (electric lighting) made its way into everyday lives, the jig was up; the game won. In most places nowadays there’s (almost) no need for oil lamps, but they are a delightful item to collect because they give us insight into what life was like hundreds and hundreds of years ago.  

Antique Spotlight: Oil Lamps
from: Watona F. Beggs Henry: "Is the there any type of information on Vintage Oil Lamps?"

Collecting

The good thing about collecting antique lamps is that, because they were so utilized and a part of daily life, it’s easy to find different ones at different price points. While this is great news for someone just starting their collection, or for enthusiasts with a smaller budget, this also means it can be more difficult to establish authenticity and rarity. We’ve compiled our most helpful tips for collecting so that you can be as prepared as possible when you dive into your search!

  • Find a reliable antique seller or someone who knows a lot about antique lamps so you can go to them with questions or quandaries during your search.
  • Be cautious when you hear sellers mention lamps that are “antique-looking”
  • If you find a seller who refuses to have the lamp or metal cleaned before shipping it, it could be a sign that the condition of the lamp is compromised.
  • Carry a strong magnet with you when you go shopping for lamps; if the magnet sticks to the metal, that means it’s plated metal, not solid. Magnets will not stick to solid gold, brass, copper or bronze.
  • Look for clean chimneys. Unclean chimneys result in uneven burning/heating, which can lead to cracks in the glass.
  • Keep an eye out for patent dates or manufacturer’s marks on any part of your lamp as a guide to said item’s authenticity.
Antique Spotlight: Oil Lamps
from: Patti Mann Mitchell: "The table and other items we bought at an antique mall but the two lamps were my mother in laws who died at the age of 98 last summer."

Care 

With our tips and tricks you’re ready to start your search, but what happens once you purchase your lamp?

  • First and foremost, make sure that the lamp is clean. The chimney, the font and the burner should all be addressed. Usually a light dusting takes care of most of it, but if your burner looks as though it’s still not up to snuff, you can usually wash it in a light detergent and water bath.
  • Once everything is clean, make sure the wick is trimmed to the appropriate length; not too long and not too short.
  • For anything more complex, or if you don’t feel comfortable doing it yourself: find a professional. If you don’t know where to start, contact a reliable antique dealer and hopefully they can direct you to someone who knows what they’re doing and can take care of your newfound treasure for you.

Hopefully you’ve found this article helpful. We love sharing things we’ve learned along the way and find that it’s those tidbits of information from strangers or passing collectors that stick in our heads. Good luck with your collections and happy hunting!