by Dr. Lori Verderame
Like early forms of lighting such as betty lamps largely used on farms, antique hand held lanterns allowed a light source to be carried from place to place. Lanterns came in various styles with punched-out tin panel doors, sheets of thin cattle horn (where lanterns got their name:lant-horn), or panes of glass that revealed a light from within.
Types of Railroad Lanterns
Some of the most collectible lanterns were used on the railroad. Railroad lanterns were used to give signals to and from train conductors, track linemen, and railway staff working at train stations.
The earliest railroad lanterns were called fixed-globe lanterns where the globe was stationary to the lantern’s frame and base. Used from the early 1860s to the mid 1870s, fixed-globe lanterns were functional until a new style of lantern grew in popularity. The new lantern was the tall-globe style lantern and it was developed by William Westlake of Adams and Westlake, lighting manufacturers active in the late 1870s and 1880s. Tall globe lanterns had removable glass globes and a large globe that helped the signal oil to properly burn within the lantern. Most tall globe lanterns measured approximately 6 inches tall.
Following the success of the tall globe lantern, innovations in the railroad lantern arena continued. In time, manufacturers began making a slightly smaller version of the tall globe lantern for use on the railway tracks and lines called a short globe lantern. Short globe lanterns measured about 3 1/4 to 4 1/2 inches tall and when kerosene replaced traditional signal oil as lantern fuel, the short globe style lantern took command of the market. Manufacturers who produced short globe railroad lanterns included Dietz, Adam and Westlake, Star Headlight & Lantern Company and others. There were common lanterns that were used by railroad personnel and more fanciful hand held lanterns that were only used by train conductors.
Don’t confuse railroad lanterns from railroad lamps. Railroad lamps are solid metal cylinders with a lens that were used to indicate the type of locomotive, last train car, and crossing gate. Learn more about oil lamps.
What to Look For
Look for railroad lanterns by well known manufacturers with all of their original parts. These parts were often interchanged so a lantern that retains all of its original parts are more valuable than a piece that is made up of various parts by various makers. Some railroad lanterns originally had parts made by multiple makers so do your research and learn which manufacturers had partnerships for parts. Look for railroad lanterns with railroad names on them or those with two colored globes which were probably owned by train conductors rather than other railroad personnel. Markings of a particular railroad company like the New York Central Line or the Pennsylvania railroad are highly collectible. Find the manufacturer’s mark on the underside of the lantern.
Get an online appraisal report of your railroad lantern from Dr. Lori.