Last updated: July 14, 2016
JEFF-745 and JEFF-746
Oil/kerosene lamps were often used as much for ornamentation in a room as for a source of light. They reached their peak in artistry in the second half of the nineteenth century, which became the golden age of American oil lamps. There are two examples in our collection-the first lamp (JEFF 745) is plain in style with a clear, molded glass base attached to the glass kerosene container.The other lamp (JEFF 746) has a colorful, decorative base of blue glass which opens up into a white glass kerosene container decorated with pink flowers.Both are standard flat wick lamps. American kerosene lamps have become very collectible since the mid-twentieth century.
For thousands of years the only source of light for homes was either candles or lamps made of shallow bowls with a wick or small rag floating in animal fats or oils. In 1781, a Swiss chemist named Aime Argand introduced the first successful oil lamp. The key to his success was introducing a metallic wick holder to the already existing oil lamp that allowed for more air to reach the flame, therefore producing a far brighter and clearer light. He also added a glass chimney which increased the air flow while sheltering the flame from drafts. The result was a lamp that produced seven to ten times as much light as a candle with far less smoke.
The first fuel used for these lamps was whale oil, which was liquid at room temperature. The rapid increase in the demand for whale oil made whaling one of the largest industries in the first half of the nineteenth century in America.Whale oil, however, was extremely expensive for many people, so the need arose to find a less expensive fuel.
Early experiments with hydrocarbons from coal were unsuccessful due to the volatile nature of the fuels. Many lamps exploded due to this problem.
The final major development of these types of lamps came in the 1850's, when kerosene was produced both in Poland and the United States.The word "kerosene" comes from the Greek work "keroselaion" which means "wax oil". This fluid was far less volatile, and therefore, completely safe. The discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1858 meant that kerosene could be produced in abundance and at a third of the price of whale oil. Within a few years, most oil lamps were designed for kerosene. The use of kerosene remained costly for some and was still considered a luxury item.
Despite the use of natural gas dating centuries back, it did not become commonplace in every home until the nineteenth century.Gas lighting had its origins in coal mining, where accumulating and escaping gases were known for their adverse effects.William Murdoch was the first to utilize the flammability of gas for the practical purpose of lighting.After experimenting with various types of gas in the 1790's, he finally settled on coal gas as the most
effective. The first public street lighting with gas was demonstrated in Pall Mall London in 1807. Baltimore was the first American city to use gas streetlights in 1816.St. Louis got its first gas street lighting in 1847.Gas produced a far brighter light than oil or kerosene, was much cleaner and far less expensive. The introduction of gas lighting in the home ended the age of oil lamps and with it, the artistry that went into making lamps.Gas lights soon became the simple and everyday means of providing light.