by Dr. Lori Verderame
Do you know the difference between a lamp and a light? Lamps use a fuel source and a light relies on electricity to provide illumination. Oil lamps were used in the ancient world. Primitive oil lamps had a pour hole where the fuel was poured in and a wick to light the fuel and give light. Made of bronze, terracotta, stone, oil lamps were reusable and safer than open flame torches. Fuel sources included fish oil, whale oil, olive oil, etc. And, the oil lamp was used to power the first light houses like the one at the ancient city of Alexandria. Don’t confuse certain lamps with railroad lanterns.
Parts of Oil Lamps
There are many parts to an oil lamp including the chimney, burner, font, and wick. There were different types of oil lamps in the 1800s and early 1900s such as Argand lamps which used a flat wick and a central air tube for efficient burning. There were oil lamps that used round wicks and a chimney which supplied air to the flame via a draft tube. Round wicks offered a larger burning surface area and a brighter flame.
Some of the most popular oil lamps were composite oil lamps. Composite oil lamps were made up of different parts which were often made by different manufacturers. Composite lamps had a glass font with a wick and burner, a base for stability and a decorative stem which connected the font to the base. Burners could be made of metal, fonts of ceramic or glass and bases were made of many materials from marble to stone. Composite lamps could be decorated with hand painted scenes, transferware ceramic imagery, etc. Most oil lamp collectors look for parts as well as complete composite oil lamps.
One group of oil lamps are called finger lamps. They were named for their unique form which allowed the lamp to be carried by placing a finger inside a round loop at the base of the lamp. The font and wick were small scale and hand held. There remains a strong market for oil lamps in its many forms. Another popular lamp is the betty lamp.
What to Look For
When it comes to collectibility and value in oil lamps of all types, look for good condition, decorative fonts of molded glass with geometric shapes or patterns, pressed glass, depression glass or other colored glass, mouth blown glass, transferware ceramic stems, hand painted designs, etc. The oil lamp’s stems, crystal or prism holders, burners, and wick holders with a popular manufacturer’s name on them are also desirable with collectors. Some of the best known manufacturers of oil lamps and oil lamp parts are Dietz of Syracuse, NY, Bradley & Hubbard of Meriden, CT, Plume & Atwood Mfg. Co. of Waterbury, CT, Atterbury & Company of Pittsburgh, PA, and the Solar Mfg. Company. Try to collect oil lamps in good condition and with complete parts, whenever possible, as this will impact the value of the oil lamp.
Get an online appraisal report of your oil lamp or finger lamp from Dr. Lori.