R.B. sends me a working kerosene lamp that is rustic and simple. It has a bracket for a wall-mount to the rear as well as a flat bottom for table mounting. The lamp clearly was moved around a home. The reflector (the metal part that curves around the chimney to reflect back the flame) has a hole, which supports the chimney. R.B. writes that perhaps the hole support indicated that the lamp was made for a train or a ship. It is 14 inches tall by 6 5/8 inches wide.
This is a kerosene lamp with reflector circa 1870 with a cylindrical reservoir behind a curved tin reflected (which is unpolished) with a clear glass chimney on a brass burner and tin font for the oil. The green paint seems to be original as it is a common color for 1870; however, I expected to see some evidence of rust coming through if it is old paint.
Indeed the lamp was conveyed – it is meant to be a wall sconce and hung on many different walls in many parts of a house. Occasionally you will find models like this with mirrored or polished reflector backs, and on others you will see two little attached dishes to hold (in one) unfired matches, and in the other, used matches. The whole lamp was a fire hazard, but it came long before the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval or Underwriter’s Labs approbation.
R.B., your lamp was NOT made for a ship or a train; in fact, the folks who perhaps owned this lamp in 1870 never would have had the money for such luxuries as ocean or Pullman travel. The owners were common folk. Almost every modest house in rural American that had a working family inside would have had such a wall sconce from 1860-80. You’ll often find simple lamps housed in glass shadow boxes that have tabs for nails on their backs and tops, and almost all of them have holes cut into the housing for a chimney. A lamp much have air, and glass and kerosene being a luxury; a lamp was portable. You could not afford too many. These were often carried through the house in the evenings and mounted upon distant nails.
If the household was wealthier, you might find an Argand lamp, which boasted a fancier style of burner that housed a circular wick through which a current of air flowed; supplying more oxygen to a flame meant a more brilliant light. Because of the brightness of the light produced, Argand lamps were sometimes double lights and were accentuated with crystal prisms belowe the chimney to reflect all that pretty light.
If the household was even classier, you’d find an Astral lamp, whose name derives from the Greek word for star (astron), the most brilliant of the kerosene lamp family in the late 19th C. The Astral lamp was a tall table lamp with a central circular reservoir for oil that was connected to an Argand burner. Because of the intense light, the chimney of an Astral lamp was designed in satin glass with engravings of flowers.
If a wife needed to light the way home for a husband out late and wanted a lamp burning in the window, this called for a hurricane shade, with a chimney of height that protected the flame from drafts. These chimneys were engraved to refract the light.
Of all the kerosene lamps, the finest was one meant to impress your guests with soft glowing light. Today these large lamps are called Gone With The Wind lamps, but in 1880 there was no movie by that name: its 1880 name was the banquet lamp. The huge showy glass ball shade was white painted glass over a tall clear glass chimney over a similarly painted glass base, which held a fond of brass and central oil reservoir. To be fashionable, the glass shade matched the glass bottom, both thematically painted. Original banquet lamps that have matching tops and bottoms of painted glass are hard to find today due to breakage.
R.B., if your modest tin kerosene wall sconce was owned by your relatives, they could not have hoped for an Argand, Astral, Hurricane or Banquet lamp. Although all these lamps produced a flame fed on kerosene, your lamp was the most inexpensive, practical and humble, not meant for show, and not built for flashily maximizing the available flame. But it worked. Today your lamp is worth $100.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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