Brief Outline of American Lamp Development in the Kerosene Era
I have always reported about American lamps with their special sizes when I told about burners, chimneys, shades, etc. at General Informations, but I take the opportunity again to report about them here in a little more detail. The reason for this is that the American lamp industry has developed independently of what is happening in Europe and we in Europe do not have any basic knowledge about American lamps.
For a very long time, the Americans had simple lamps with flat burners and without a separate shade. The lamp bodies very often consisted of a foot and a short column, on which the kerosene/paraffin tank also sat. The material was almost always glass, and it was not uncommon for the foot, column and tank to be made of the same pressed glass together in one piece. As a result, the first lamp manufacturers were almost without exception glass manufactories that produced completely different glass articles for domestic use in addition to glass lamps. In the course of time, decidedly embossed patterns for the foot and kerosene/paraffin tank developed, which have their own special designations among American collectors. These lamps, which in themselves are very unpretentious, enjoy a large collector community in the USA and often fetch astonishingly high prices.
This early form of American work lamp had its origins in the oil lamps used before it, above all in the whale oil lamps, which were very widespread in the USA and Canada. With the advent of kerosene/paraffin lamps, the burners were replaced by simple flat wick burners, and the archetype of the American kerosene/paraffin lamp was "born". Whereas in Europe the simple flat burners were very quickly replaced by the better round burners and the shapes of the lamps and their shades were developed in many different ways, in America the simple lamps with their archaic flat burners were kept for a very long time. Obviously, there was no increased demand for better (and often more expensive) lamps. The American nation was busy expanding wildly westward; there the simple, uncomplicated lamps were good enough for a growing population of workers and farmers. Once a wealthy middle class had developed, primarily on the east coast of America, their demand for better, more valuable, "presentable" lamps could easily be satisfied with imports from Europe. This is probably one of the reasons why a nation like the US-Americans did not develop lamps of comparable technical and artistic quality to European lamps for a long time. The British as a former colonial power dominated the rather small market for luxurious, expensive consumer goods.
From around 1870-1875, a more artistically sophisticated variant, the so called “composit lamp” developed from the simple glass lamps made of pressed glass. In these lamps, certain lamp parts were made of different materials and then combined together, hence the term "composit". The base was now made of more or less decorated plinths, mostly of cast iron. A small section of columns was placed on top, usually in the form of small statues made of pressed glass or cast zinc, which then supported the font, again often made of pressed glass. The burners used were still flat burners in different sizes, but increasingly also Duplex burners with larger dimensions. In the case of higher-quality lamps of this type, a spherical shade was also added, which sometimes even had etched decorations.
In the last third of the 19th century, there were also technically sophisticated lamps, although these were based on European developments. These included the classic student lamps by C.A. Kleemann with the lateral mounted “invert” font, which had great market success in the USA and were copied by many companies. The central draft lamps by Lempereur & Bernard from Belgium also conquered wide circles of customers, which then presumably became the decisive model for the American central draft lamps.
The American lamp industry changed from the 1880s onwards. With the increasing industrialisation of the country and the accompanying formation of wealthy, demanding clientele, the time had come for genuinely innovative American lamp developments. Only now were American lamp companies founded and established, which began to use sophisticated, technically valuable round burners in artistically sophisticated lamps of their own design, mostly constructed of glass and metal. It seems that a nationally proud era had broken out. Many lamps from this period bear the designation "Made in U.S. of America" or more simply "Made in U.S.A.".
Characteristics of American Kerosene/Paraffin Lamps
In the course of time, the American lamp industry has developed different lamp shapes, which were initially based on European lamps, but later evolved quite independently. In the following picture, I have tried to describe the essentials with photos of my own lamp stocks (therefore the selection is very subjective and not entirely representative).
Some lamp examples from the development of American lamps
Top row, from left: a) Composite lamp with cast zinc base and glass font
b) Composite lamp with cast iron base, cast zinc statue and glass font (E. Miller)
c) Silver-plated bijou lamp with European influence (Simpson)
d) Lamp with Gien vase from France (Hollings)
e) Lamp with glass vase by Thomas Webb from Great Britain
Bottom row, from left: a) Lamp in nickel-plated sheet brass (E. Miller)
b) Lamp made of sheet brass (Rochester)
c) Lamp with painted glass vase
d) Lamp with painted glass vase
e) A "Gone with the wind" lamp with large painted glass vase (Fostoria)
I am not mentioning the simple pressed glass lamps of the American glass industry here, as I do not own a single example of them. They probably came to Europe only very rarely. I am also not including the sliding lamps, which enjoyed great popularity in the USA, as they only followed the German model of C.A. Kleemann. The so-called composite lamps from America (see above) can be found somewhat more often on European eBay portals. Their main feature as a composition of several parts with different materials can also often be found in typical European lamps.
In the transitional period from composite lamps to central-draft lamps of purely American design, there were, of course, lamps inspired by European models or constructed with parts imported from Europe (vases made of glass, ceramics and porcelain, sporadically also burners).
With the emergence of the large lamp companies, three main lamp forms established themselves in the independent American style: a) lamps made entirely of metal, mostly of sheet brass, sometimes also nickel-plated; b) lamps with a hand-painted glass vase on a cast metal base of iron, brass or zinc; c) large lamps made of hand-painted vases and glass shades with uniform floral motifs; the so-called "Gone with the wind" lamps (see below). These lamps then very often had a large (calculated 28-line) central-draft burner.
American Burners and Glass Chimneys
As mentioned above, the first American petroleum lamps had an American flat burner (possibly at the very beginning as a copy of the Vienna flat burner by R. Ditmar), which they also kept for a long time. Over time, they developed different variants with innovative equipment. There were then burners whose gallery and basket were connected to each other with a hinge so that the lamp could be lit with the cap open without removing the chimney. Other versions had sawed-out windows on their basket to insert a burning match from the side. Still other burners had a burner cap made entirely of glass to improve the light output. Some burners already had a flame extinguisher; others had special tubes on the side to fill in the kerosene/paraffin. Over time, an astonishing variety of American flat burners came into being. A good overview can be found on the website of Dan Edminster from Hurleyville, New York: www.thelampworks.com.
In addition to the flat burners with one wick, there were also Duplex burners based on the English model, but in larger dimensions and with wider wicks. The American Duplex burners are analogous to the British Duplex burners in their construction; they are often also equipped with an extinguisher. Some of them even have two different thread sizes so that they can be used with two different font collars that correspond in size.
The great revolution came in 1884 when Rochester Lamp Co. introduced a center-draft burner with a completely new type of flame disc. This flame disc with its "thimble" shape and with many small holes on its wall had no resemblance at all to the flame discs made of a flat disc on a pin or tube that had been common until then. The ancestor of the later "hat-on-sieve-tube" flame discs was born! For a description of this innovative innovation, see Burners with Flame Disc - American Thimble-Shaped Flame Disc with Many Holes.
The round burners subsequently developed from about 1885 onwards bore no resemblance at all to German or French round burners. They are more comparable in technique to the Belgian burners, for the basic features are strikingly similar: the font is almost always constructed of sheet metal, with a wide tube in the middle to provide air draft from below. Almost all lamps in this era are center-draft lamps. Either the entire lamp is made of metal, in which case it is not uncommon for the vase to also be the font, or made with a combination of glass vase and metal base, with the metal font hidden inside the glass vase.
The wick is a pronounced tubular wick wrapped around the central air tube (completely parallel to the Belgian burners). The basket of the burner is placed on the middle tube with the wick. This type of burner always has a flame disc, some of which can look completely different from the European flame discs. The American examples belong almost without exception to the type with the wider screen tube; they thus sit on the middle air tube of the lamp, but they are much larger than the European ones. For us Europeans, the immense variety of shapes of these flame discs is surprising. It often happens that the same lamp manufacturer has developed several flame discs for almost identical lamps in the course of his company history and introduced them to the market. Since these flame discs often carry patent data, I suspect that the competition between the American lamp manufacturers has been rather fierce in this technical field. After all, this makes it possible to date a lamp fairly accurately, provided you have the book "Center-Draft Kerosene Lamps" by J. W. "Bill" Courter in your hands.
A special feature of the American lamps is that they do not have a logo on their wick knob. The wick knob is either only decoratively adorned, or bears the designation "Made in America" or similar (see above). The manufacturing company has instead "immortalised" itself much more often on the flame disc, combined with the preceding patent data. Some companies put their name on the upper part of the kerosene/paraffin tank (called “oil pot” among collectors), because this part is always visible, even if the rest of the tank is hidden in the glass vase.
The next two collective photos of my 10 center-draft lamps show impressively how different the shapes of the flame discs can be. Some bear up to 5 patent dates.
Some flame discs of the American center-draft lamps with their patent dates (top row: flame discs from above)
From left: Royal – Fostoria – Consolidated (burner at all three lamps by Plume & Atwood) – Bristol – Bradley & Hubbard
Correction: The last patent date on the last flame disc should read correctly: 15-10-1889.
Some other flame discs of the American center-draft lamps with their patent dates (top row: flame discs from above)
From left: New Rochester – Rochester – E. Miller (Miller Lamp) – E. Miller (Vestal Lamp) – Matthews & Willard
Another special feature of the American lamps is that their wick drive does not always have a wick knob. The earlier versions have a vertical pin that is connected to the wick and whose upper end protrudes from the font (not from the burner itself!). You can move the wick up or down accordingly by pulling out or pushing down on this pin. Sometimes these pins do have a knurled wheel on their shaft to facilitate the movement of the pin. Later, this pin mechanism was abandoned in favour of a wick knob. But the wick knob also works differently from the usual European examples; it has to move the tubular wick around the central air tube. Therefore, it often has to move an inner metallic tube that grips the wick by small claws and pulls it along when it is moved. The wick knob can be horizontal or inclined, depending on the specific mechanics.
Some wick drive types in American center-draft burners
From left: Wick drive with rack and gear wheel on wick knob (Fostoria)
Wick drive with rack and rotary knob (E. Miller – Miller Lamp)
Wick drive with simple rod (Bradley & Hubbard)
Wick drive with slanted wick knob (New Rochester)
The size of the American kerosene/paraffin burners is not indicated with the European "line"; the burners and the matching glass chimneys are numbered uniformly. There are sizes 0, 1, 2 and 3, with size 0 being rare. The larger the number, the larger the burner. The most frequently used size is probably No.2 (in the USA, number is often abbreviated with the character #; #2 thus corresponds to number 2).
|USA burner||Collar Thread Diameter||Wick width||Fitter width
|Flat #0||11/16||17.5||1/2||13||2 1/8||54|
|Flat #1||7/8||22||5/8||16||2 1/2||63|
|Flat #2||1 1/4||32||1||26||3||76|
|Flat #3||1 3/4||46||1 1/2||38||3||76|
|Center-draft #2||No specification, as only own burners are installed||45||Round wick 40 mm diameter||2 3/5||67|
Size chart of the most common American flat and central draft burners
The American burners, whether flat burners or round burners with central draft, have three different designs on their gallery to hold the glass chimney in place:
a) 4 high, spring-mounted bars (the most common type; called "prong burner" in American);
b) a gallery similar to the European galleries with prongs all around (called "coronet burner" in American);
c) an implied gallery like type b), but additionally with small screws to hold the chimney in place, which has an outwardly lipped fitter at the bottom (early type, rare).
The glass chimneys used have the same bulge shape as the Vienna bulge chimneys and are still produced today in the dimensions reproduced above, but - just like the newly produced European glasses - they do not bear a mark. They can be bought in 2-3 different heights and also with different bulge diameters. Old, marked chimneys are unfortunately extremely rare and reach correspondingly high prices.
Shades and Shade Holders
The American salon lamps often carried a glass shade, similar to our Vesta shade, but again in a shape of its own. The lower edge of the shade does not bear a collar on older shades, but is smoothly cut like a Rochester shade, and the upper neck area is not designed like a tulip, but has a bulging, squat, smoothly cut section that nevertheless allows the shade to be removed and replaced with one hand. These shades are either made of opaque white or slightly coloured glass, or are hand-painted, with certain variants having an interior painting that appears all the more beautiful when the lamp is lit. Later, Vesta shades with a decided fitter became more common. The shades of the so-called "Gone with the wind" lamps (see below) were often ball shades made of painted opaque white glass. Tulip shades are much rarer; they were almost only used in gas lamps.
The typical Rochester and Vesta shades of USA
Another special feature of the American lamps is their shade holder. Both old and new shade holders for Vesta or Rochester shades often do not have an outer ring like the European ones; the three brass rods that support the outer ring in the European shade holders, into which the Vesta shade is inserted, replace this outer ring in the American examples; their ends are bent upwards; the glass shade is simply placed on these rod ends. However, there are also the conventional shade holders. The sizes of the shades are probably standardised: there are 7 inch (just under 180 mm) and 10 inch (250 mm) diameters. The shades for hanging lamps are 14 inches (360 mm) in diameter.
The "Gone with the wind" Lamps
Now it is time to tell you something about a variation of American lamps, the so-called "Gone with the wind" lamps, often abbreviated to "GWTW" on eBay USA. Many of you will be familiar with the legendary American movie "Gone With The Wind", based on the novel of the same name, which tells a love story against the broad, historical backdrop of the American Civil War of 1861-1865. The protagonists are very rich Southern plantation owners (the Civil War had, after all, broken out to prevent the secession of the Southern states from the American Union and also to end human slavery in the American South). The dwellings of this wealthy class are often palatial domiciles, with correspondingly rich, valuable furnishings. The filmmakers wanted to use richly decorated, stately kerosene/paraffin lamps in the interior settings of the movie in keeping with the rest of the interior. However, there were only very simple lamps in the Civil War era, which could not visually keep up with the rest of the rich household. Without further ado, the moviemakers decided to use the glamorous, much decorated, colourfully painted, grand salon lamps of the late 19th century instead of the authentic but very simple lamps. These lamps were not at all like those of the Civil War era, but they fulfilled their purpose of a very luxurious interior in the movie. Since then, such lamps have been called "Gone with the wind" lamps (at least in the vernacular) because they became very famous and collectors' items as a result of this movie.
These "Gone with the wind" lamps are distinguished from the other lamps by their large dimensions, their exceedingly rich, colourful painting and the fact that the glass shade and the glass vase had identical motifs. The body of the lamp is often made up of a rather large, often expansively wide glass vase, which is literally enthroned above a metal base, which is usually made of an elaborately designed iron casting with multiple ornamental openings. The font made of sheet brass is inserted into the mighty glass vase. The size of these metal fonts (the Americans call them "oil pot") seems to be standardised; the diameter of the lower, cylindrical part is usually 5 inches (12.8 cm). However, this creates a problem: a "Gone with the wind" lamp can be fitted with fonts and burners from a completely different company if necessary, and this means that the possibility of identifying the lamp is completely lost if there are no abbreviations of the lamp manufacturer stamped under the base of the lamp.
The corresponding glass shade is either a large ball shade made of opaque white glass (up to 28 cm in diameter) or a Vesta-like wide shade (see above for its shape). Glass vase and shades were painted with the same motifs almost all over. Large flowers and leaves were popular motifs, even set against a background painted in contrasting colours. This large-scale, for today's perception very colourful, "cheesy" painting gave the lamps more the appearance of a flower arrangement; the functional task of the lamp receded somewhat.
Examples for „Gone with the wind“ lamps (from the catalogues of Consolidated 1901 und Fostoria 1904)
The problem of a missing glass shade is of course greatest with the "Gone with the wind" lamps, because the "essence" of these lamps, their cultural-historical and collector's value, is that the uniformly painted parts (i.e. glass vase and glass shade) are completely preserved. If the shade is broken or lost, it cannot be replaced with another shade because the painting does not match. If, on the other hand, such a lamp is really completely preserved and not even electrified, i.e. still completely in its original condition, then its price can really be quite high. Such undamaged lamps are less common on eBay. Presumably, such high-quality lamps are more likely to be offered in good antique shops or at auctions.
Apart from the forms described above, there were of course other forms in America. One form that appears fairly frequently on eBay USA is more of a column shape, whereby the column does not consist of a simple brass column, but can, for example, represent very playfully executed vine work, possibly enriched with putti. This structure carries a correspondingly elaborate metal basket with multiple openings at the top, into which the metal font is inserted. Such high "column lamps" almost exclusively carry a painted ball shade made of opaque white glass, sometimes embossed with putto faces, etc.
A very common lamp is the American Aladdin lamp from The Mantle Lamp Co. These lamps have a rather large kerosene/paraffin burner and use an incandescent mantle. They are the only mantle lamps that work without pressure and carburettor that are still made today, although no longer in the USA but in South East Asia, probably for cost reasons. There is an immensely large collector community for Aladdin lamps in the USA. The general shape of these lamps is relatively simple: the font sits on the round base with its squat column. The lamp can be made entirely of glass or metal; mixed shapes are rarer. The glass shade for this lamp is invariably a Vesta-like shade, but it can take on different shapes. There are no limits to the imagination here.
Other lamps rarely found and offered at high prices are the American hanging lamps, which hardly resemble their European "sisters". Their characteristic is the large (14 inch = 360 mm diameter) painted glass shade, which has no neck at the top like the European Rochester shade, but carries a crown-like collar of decoratively stamped iron ring, painted gold. These hanging lamps often have a glass hanging of cut crystal glasses and other colourful ornaments such as coloured glass cabochons and the like to satisfy the American taste of the time.
If one considers that the US Americans are a very large nation, and that the country has never experienced widespread war destruction after the internal civil war, then one must inevitably assume that the supply of all forms of American kerosene/paraffin lamps must be huge in itself. If you browse eBay USA by typing in "oil lamp" as a search term, however, you are surprised to find that this assumption is not correct. Besides the simple lamps with their archaic flat burners that are often found, there are indeed some larger lamps, even sometimes the richly painted "Gone with the wind" lamps, but often without the matching shade and unfortunately very often electrified. This is a nuisance, because for the electrification of the lamps, which probably happened quite early, i.e. shortly after the introduction of the nationwide electricity grid, there was no need to drill glass vases or fonts, because the air draft tube offered a convenient way to lead the electricity cable upwards, but unfortunately, one had to remove and dispose of parts of the burner or at least the original flame disc. The necessary bulb socket was attached to the top of the air tube by soldering or screwing it in. A round hole was often drilled at the bottom of the metal base to attach the electric switch. This makes such lamps almost irrecoverably lost for kerosene/paraffin use in my eyes, because for a professional reconversion one would have to find and acquire the matching round burner for the lamp, if one knows at all which make it was (I had mentioned that the company was often only marked on the flame disc). However, these late, technically mature burners are very rarely offered, whereas the simple flat burners of the earlier, simple lamps turn up very often. I even think they are still being produced.
It is relatively easy to complete an American lamp purchased on eBay that is not complete, as long as only the glass chimney, shade holder or wick are missing. These parts are newly manufactured and are also offered in online mail-order shops. There are also plenty of glass shades on offer, but they are often made of single-coloured glass. The American "Vesta shades" are often vertically or diagonally ribbed or pressed into fantasy shapes. These shades are very suitable for Aladdin lamps, but can also be combined well with other, all-metal lamps, as there is no vase painting and any direction is mandatory.
The most important American lamp manufacturers are listed alphabetically in the next table (I got this information from the book "Center-Draft Kerosene Lamps" by J. W. Courter). It is noticeable that the US lamp manufacturers, in contrast to European manufacturers, have given their lamps trade names.
|Company||Location (state)||Duration||Best known lamps|
|Bradley & Hubbard Manufacturing Co.||Meriden (Connecticut)||1852-1940
(1940 takeover by Charles Parker Co.)
|Bridgeport Brass Co.||Bridgeport (Connecticut)||1865-?||Leader student lamps|
|Bristol Brass & Clock Co.||Bristol (Connecticut)||1850-1911||-|
|Charles Parker Co.||Meriden (Connecticut)||1850 until ca. 1957||Parker lamps|
|Edward Miller & Co.||Meriden (Connecticut)||1845 until today||Juno, Miller and Vestal lamps|
|Holmes, Booth & Haydens||Waterbury (Connecticut)||1853-1912||-
|Manhattan Brass Co.||New York City (New York)||1865-1926||Perfection Student lamps|
|Mantle Lamp Co.||Chicago (Illinois);
since 1949 Nashville (Tennessee)
|1908 until today||Aladdin lamps|
|Matthews & Willard Mfg. Co.||Waterbury (Connecticut)||1890-1903||-|
|Pittsburgh Lamp, Brass & Glass Co.||Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania)||1900-1926||Success lamps|
|Plume & Atwood Manufacturing Co.||Waterbury and Thomaston (Connecticut)||1869 until end of 1950‘s||Royal lamps|
|Rochester Lamp Co.||Rochester (New York)||1884-1905||Rochester lamps|
The following glass manufactories have mainly produced the pompous "Gone with the wind" lamps, which have become famous mainly for their beautifully painted vases and shades. These glass manufactories often sourced the burners from other lamp and burner manufacturers such as Edward Miller or Plume & Atwood.
|Consolidated Lamp & Glass Co.||Fostoria (Ohio); as of 1896 Coraopolis (Pennsylvania)||1893-1963|
|Fostoria Glass Co.||Fostoria (Ohio); as of 1891 Moundsville (West Virginia)||1887-1986|
|Fostoria Lamp & Shade Co.||Fostoria (Ohio)||1890-1893
(1893 takeover by Consolidated Lamp & Glass Co.)