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- Kerosene lamps sooth
- Kerosene oil lamps can be therapudic
- By Hyla Wults Fox
- Not only can antique kerosene oil lamps be the dazzling focal
point of a room, but they are even more spectacular when lit
- As Mary Phillips, a Toronto collector said: "sometimes,
when I have one of "those" days, I pour a glass of
wine and plop myself in front of a couple of lamps. Watching
the tiny flames dance somehow drains all the stress away. To
me, these beautiful lamps are instant, non-medicinal tranquilizers.
- Besides providing a calming effect, they lend a certain aura
to the environment that candles don't ever manage to attain.
Dinner parties and private summer soirees, for example, display
a certain sophistication, elegance and romantic ambiance when
lit by oil lamps. Others, like Phillips, enjoy the fact that
they are functional and don't have to be stored away because
of their fragile natures.
- Whatever the reasons for collecting, pickings are excellent
in Ontario and stock is available in many shops and at antique
shows. Compared to the United States, our lamps are quite affordable.
Americans have a strong passion for oil lamps and pieces that
don't sell quickly here, because there isn't a large collector
base, often get shipped to the United States where dealers usually
get more than their asking price in Canada.
- Oil lamps have great long term investment potential, especially
if they are signed by the manufacturer, identified in books and
made in North America. A patent date, often found on the lamp
base, also helps increase the value.
- Interestingly, oil lamps have not been around that long.
They began appearing in 1860 about the time the first commercial
oil wells were drilled. Before that, illumination was exclusively
provided by burning candles, lard, whale oil or gas.
- Credit for the discovery of kerosene goes to Dr. Abraham
Gesner, a physician and geologist from Nova Scotia, who,
in 1846 demonstrated the benefits of coal oil, in Charlottetown,
Prince Edward Island but did not patent his discovery until 1854.
- Although a small amount of oil was found in Petrolia, Ontario,
the major break came in 1859 when a huge, cheap supply of oil
was found in Pennsylvania.
- Catharine Thuro, author of three excellent books on
kerosene lamps, claims this discovery was "more dramatic
than the gold rush" because it put North America instantly
into the kerosene era. It was cleaner, safer and burned brighter
than anything used before.
- "There were many established lamp manufacturers in place.
In late 1859, as soon as the oil discovery was publicized, all
the lamp companies could easily switch to the production of kerosene
lamps and many were doing so by 1860, shipping millions of lamps,
according to export records, all over the world.
- Curiously, most of
the lamps and the glass were made in the Pittsburgh area which,
coincidentally, is where the oil was discovered. While lamps
were manufactured in other places such as in the New England
area, England and the Continent, the bulk were created in the
North Eastern corner of the United States.
- The appearance of the lamps changed periodically, helping
to date them. According to Thuro, a fellow of the prestigious
Corning Museum in New York State and the doyenne of historical
lighting in North America, "planned obsolescence has provided
us with distinctive lamps for every decade of the Kerosene Era.
- Thuro's research indicates that the 1860s and 70s bases and
fonts (the font is the part used to hold the oil) were often
sold separately and "could have been put together by wholesaler,
retailer or by the customer. A broken part may also have been
replaced with one having a different colour or design. These
factors may explain why some rather strange combinations occur
and relatively few identical combinations are found today.
- Some highly sought-after lamps of the 1860-70 period were
made from a cased or overlay glass. A spectacular effect was
achieved by grinding designs through the outer surfaces of two
or more layers of glass. Wide-angle lenses that focus on the
interior of the lamp were thus created, giving a multi-mirrored
- During the late 1880s and 1890s, lamps became even fancier.
Bases often featured opalescent, opaque or alabaster glass, which
was translucent with flecks or a granular appearance. Gradually
from that point into this century, lamps and shades were often
made with white opalescent accents and patterns, particularly
spots and stripes.
- All-glass lamps, made with mold-blown fonts fused to a pressed-glass
base, were the most common. Hundreds of early all-glass patterns
have been recorded. Most were colourless. Today these are the
least expensive. Coloured lamps are the examples most coveted
by advanced collectors.Green, canary yellow, blue and cranberry
were made during the 1860-1900 period and are typically the ones
fetching the highest prices.
- The use of fully automated glass-making machines and the
threat that electric lights would make kerosene lamps obsolete
contributed to the deterioration in their design and quality.
By the turn of the 20th century, production had greatly slowed
down. But the kerosene era lingered in parts of rural Canada.
In her research, Thuro, who bought her first oil lamp at a weekend
flea market in the Thorncliffe Park area of Toronto in 1970,
found that as "late as the 1950s antique dealers traded
new lamps for old, following hydro crews as the network of power
lines reached out to farms across the country."
- If you have a vintage oil lamp and plan to use it, here are
a few tips, one of which Mary Phillips would not have discovered
had her dad not been around to offer advice. Phillips could not
keep the wick lit, even though it had been neatly trimmed Her
father saved the day when he demonstrated how to cut the wick
properly, a task he learned more than seventy years prior, as
a child doing chores in the old country:
- "I watched
him cut the wick in an inverted U shape so that the corners were
shorter than the centre portion. After that, I had no problem
keeping the flame lit.
- Other suggestions include making certain the wick is the
same width as the wick tube and is thick enough to fill the wick
tube, protruding just slightly above the burner. Refined lamp
oil, available in most hardware stores should be used as it is
cleaner than ordinary kerosene. Most of all, always keep safety
in mind. Don't leave the lamp lit when you are out of the room.
- Beyond all this, consider giving oil lamps as wedding or
engagement gifts because they bespeak warmth and a unique link
to our past. Or, you could use them as Mary Phillips does, for
relaxation purposes after a long day's work. But the bottom line
is that they really do make a decorating statement and would
create a sensational, to-die-for-centre-piece.
- No doubt with all of us thinking of ways to conserve energy,
the thought of a lamp-lit evening every now and again will become
a favourite pastime for many of us.
- For decades, the career of Hyla Wults Fox has been driven
by the whimsical world of antiques and collectibles. She had
a column, about antiques and collectibles in the Saturday Toronto
Star and later was the feature antique specialist for the Globe
and Mail. Her work has also appeared in dozens of glossy Canadian,
general-interest magazines as well as in many North American
specialized antique journals.
- The author of two books about antiques, published by Methuen,
Canada, and Dundurn Press, she has also been a guest on numerous
TV and radio programs. She can be reached by writing to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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