© Tsekyi Thür

Characteristics of American Lamps

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.

However, this changed from the 1870-1880's, when Americans began to industrialise more and more. 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.".

 

American Burners and Glass Chimneys

The round burners now developed bore no resemblance at all to German or French round burners, nor to the British Duplex 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

 

 

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
glass chimney
  inch mm inch mm inch mm
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 film "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 film 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 filmmakers 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 film. 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 film.

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 (in American they are called "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, "kitschy" 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.

 

Other Characteristics

Apart from the forms described above, there were of course other forms in America. One form that appears fairly frequently in 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 petroleum 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.

 

Lamp Manufacturers

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.)
Rayo lamps
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
Manhattan Brass Co. New York City (New York) 1865-1926 Perfection Student lamps
Mantle Lamp Co. Chicago (Illinois); ab 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 und 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.

Company Location (state) Duration
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.)