The beauty of antique kerosene lamps – and how one invention changed the way people lived

Antique kerosene lamps

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Whether plain or fancy, antique kerosene lamps like these were more than charming home decor. The invention of the indoor oil lantern actually made it possible for people to work and play late into the night, changing the way Americans spent their time.

See several collections of beautiful old kerosene lamps, and find out about the inventor who found the key to making them practical for everyone.

Antique hunting: Collectible kerosene lamps (1975)

Rosemary L Klein – American Home, February 1975

A century ago, kerosene lamps brightened the homes of America, inside and out. Besides casting a lovely warm glow, the lamps were picturesque, but simple and inexpensive to maintain.

They still are. Today, examples like these, as well as modern copies, are being snapped up for their decorative charm and usefulness. 

The beauty of antique kerosene lamps

Here is a representative sampling of glass kerosene lamps whose popularity extended from the 1850s to the advent of electricity.

Clockwise from top right:

  • Barn light with reflector had multiple uses, for it could hang as easily outside a front door as inside a barn;
  • satin-glass lamp has Spanish-lace pattern;
  • child’s tin lantern was for outdoor use;
  • satin-glass bedroom lamp has base with teardrop pattern;
  • small lamp with handle has opalescent base;
  • blue blown-glass lamp boasts a fine early chimney;
  • Rayo lamp’s shade is green glass, its base is nickel-plated brass.

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A collection of antique kerosene lamps

A collection of antique kerosene lamps

12 antique painted and decorated antique oil lamps (1904)

These vintage painted glass lampshades were made by Fostoria

Antique Fostoria glass company oil lamps from 1904 (2)

Antique Fostoria glass company oil lamps from 1904 (1)

Antique Fostoria Painted and decorated antique oil lamps (1904)

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Antique gas light globes from 1923

Antique gas light globes from 1923 (6)

Antique gas light globes from 1923 (1)

Antique gas light globes from 1923 (2)

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Antique gas light globes from 1923 (3)

Antique gas light globes from 1923 (4)

Antique gas light globes from 1923 (5)

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The history of one style of antique oil lamp

Irwin’s patented invention of the tubular hot-blast lantern

Adapted from an article by The Smithsonian Museum

John H. Irwin received patent number 35,158 on May 6, 1862, for this design of a coal oil lamp.

Irwin’s lamp was designed for coal oils and other similar hydrocarbons (such as kerosene) which volatilized at low temperatures and required an excess of oxygen to support illumination.

The excess of oxygen was provided by the lamp’s large draft passage, which was divided into compartments to prevent stiff currents of air from blowing out the flame.

Coal oil originally emitted a smoky flame until it was refined into kerosene — and this refinement made it possible for such lamps to be used indoors.

With his invention, the bright and economical flame changed society’s concepts of time, work, leisure activities, and consumption.

Improved lighting increased productivity, as factory workers labored far into the night. Lit public spaces extended the hours spent in oyster houses, theatres and museums, and provided shoppers better views of consumer goods.

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The history of the oil lamp Irwin's Patent - Smithsonian
Irwin’s Oil Lamp Patent Model / Photo courtesy the Smithsonian (CC0)

A windfall of $300,000: Inventor Irwin’s handsome legacy to his affianced

From The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) August 14, 1890

The peculiar bequest of John H. Irwin of Morton, Delaware County, has opened the way to a story full of romance.

A rich inventor dies suddenly, his few relatives and many friends come to his funeral, the body is laid to rest in a beautiful cemetery, and then everybody is astonished when a pretty girl, only 22 years old, produces a will, giving to her all of an immense property, valued at about $300,000. This girl, too, lives 900 miles away.

This is the story in brief of the death and bequest of John H. Irwin, the inventor.

The life of Inventor Irwin was an eventful one. He was a son of David H. Irwin, now resident in Beardstown, Ill., and was born in Trenton, N.J., on June 9, 1839.

Various designs of student kerosene and oil lamps 1881 - LOC
Various designs of student kerosene and oil lamps (1881) – Image courtesy the US Library of Congress

His mother was a Birchall, of a family now celebrated in the Illinois capital. She died when John was 2 years old. He was placed in the care of an aunt while the father went West.

He made his home in Virginia, Ill., and there engaged in the real estate business, running for a while a country store. When John was 8 years old, his father returned to Trenton and took him West. The lad lived with him until he was 13.

Whether he did not like the stepmother, or the village of Virginia was too dull for the adventurous and ambitious lad, remains a problem, but one day he left home and started for Springfield. He walked halfway when he grew hungry and weary, and stopped at a farmhouse to ask for work and lodging.

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The farmer took him in, and after a few days, learned from the boy who his parents and relatives were. The farmer took the boy to his uncle, a Mr. Birchall in Springfield.

William Birchall, a brother of John H. Irwin’s mother, was then state printer of Illinois, and was running a printing-house and book-bindery in Springfield. With him, young John worked until his father found him and took him home.

This Birchill was the grandfather of the young lady to whom Irwin has now left his magnificent fortune.

After a short but restless stay in dull Virginia, the father decided that the best thing to do with John was to take him back to his uncle, let him learn a trade, and make his own struggle for likelihood.

Antique gaslighting 1901
Antique gaslighting from 1901

John H Irwin invents the tubular hot-blast lantern

John was apprenticed at the printing business, and although he soon learned to set his stick of type in decent time, he became restless, and after two years, went home.

Then the young man had already begun to show his inventive genius. He was always working at some odd but impracticable affair, until his father suggested to him one day that he ought to do something practical, something which would bring money into the family coffer, which was at the time yawning in emptiness.

The father told him that lamps and lanterns would go cut if dropped or lowered suddenly or affected by a strong draft, and advised him to go to work on a lantern which would not go out if moved rapidly up and down.

John went out to the tool house and set to work. It required only three days for the invention of the tubular hot-blast lantern, which subsequently brought John H. Irwin $20,000 a year in royalties.

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Antique kerosene gas lamp
Photo by Costin79/Dreamstime

John rushed into the store yelling, “I’ve got it,” and he swung his model lantern up and down fiendishly, without being able to extinguish it.

The father then gave John money to go to Chicago. and remain there until he could secure the cooperation of capitalists who would push his invention on the market.

A patent was taken out, a beautiful model made, and the start was finally secured. This was the beginning of Irwin’s successful career.

The war, however, began at this period, and adventurous John forgot his invention and his manufacturing company and enlisted in the navy.

For four years, he served Uncle Sam under the Union Jack. When peace came, he returned home to Philadelphia to find that his tubular lamp had become popular, and was bringing in big returns.

After looking about for a few years, visiting his father and calling upon his uncle Birchall at Springfield, he finally decided to buy land at Morton, in Delaware county, and establish a scientific laboratory and machine shop.

For a few dollars per acre, he bought land, which is now valued at from $1,000 to $5,000 an acre. There he has lived for nineteen years, surrounded by a magnificent estate of 140 acres, on which is a fine brick mansion, situated in well-arranged grounds, and a well-filled laboratory. machine shop and gas house, where he has labored with wonderful persistence in perfecting about 200 different inventions.

Antique kerosene lantern
Photo by Azaliya/Dreamstime

The new light! Atmospheric kerosene oil lamp (1866)

Artificial Light, of some sort, is a universal necessity; a safe, cheap and brilliant one is a luxury; a luxury, too, only enjoyed heretofore by those living in large towns or cities where Gas is used.

Years of study and thousands of dollars annually have been spent by experiments of different kinds, in trying to invent and perfect a Burner or Lamp by which Coal Oil or Kerosene could be burned practicably, without the expense and trouble of chimneys; this long looked for and much desired object has at last has been obtained, and is styled the

Atmospheric Coal Oil Lamp!

Its adaptation to Dwellings, Churches, Railroads, Steamboats, Hotels, Stores, &c., is unsurpassed; in short, this invention brings the luxurious and brilliant Gas Light within the reach of all, whether in City or Country.

It gives the light of a six-foot Gas Burner, for less than one cent per hour, or double the quantity of light of the ordinary chimney-lamp, with one-third less oil; will burn, when turned down to a taper light, ten hours for one cent; is free from smoke or smell; can be carried from room to room; the wind will not blow it out.

This Lamp is destined to supersede all portable artificial light or chimney lamps now in use, and needs only to be seen to be appreciated; thousands of them will find ready sale in every county; no family that uses this lamp for one evening will again be annoyed with the chimney Lamps.

Thousands of them will be used in cities, as this light is one-half cheaper than Coal Gas, and much more pleasant to the eye. The exclusive right for the sale of this invention can be secured in every County throughout the United States, and parties purchasing will be supplied, at wholesale, with the Lamps and fixtures at reasonable rates.

The new light - Atmospheric kerosene coal oil lamp - Danford 1866 - LOC

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Photo by John Sfondilias/Dreamstime
Photo by John Sfondilias/Dreamstime

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