Early American Metal Lamps and Lanterns

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Early American Metal Lamps and Lanterns

A trip these days to virtually any store in America that sells lamps will generally uncover only cheap glass font lamps made in China.  These lamps are not for serious use and are actually more like mood enhancers for special occasions than rugged lamps for everyday use.  From 1880 until about World War I, however, a great number of very interesting metal lamps were made in the New England states.  Lamps with metal fonts were made for about any purpose one could imagine, and made rugged enough to last for centuries.  The lamps below represent only a tiny fraction of the many styles of flat wick lamps made during that period.  These are flat wick lamps, not circular wick lamps, which are shown here

At left is a Plume and Atwood (P&A) Risdon warehouse lamp.  The industrial oil can like font is made from quite thick metal.  The reflector is permanently attached with an "L" bracket.  That beautiful finish is nothing more than extremely well done galvanizing!  This lamp uses a #2 burner with a standard 3" diameter fitter.  Click on any photo to enlarge for more detail.


At right is a cute little bedroom lamp for long winter nights.  The mirrored reflector is on a flat panel which is permanently soldered to the back of the font.  The font has seams top and bottom, with the middle section being a flat wrap of steel with a soldered and riveted seam in the front.  The burner on this lamp is a #6 Kosmos-Brenner, and the chimney is a 1 1/4" fitter.


This lamp is a wall bracket style designed to fit into a slotted steel wall holder, yet be easy to remove and carry via the handle.  These lamps were quite popular for lighting the way from the porch to the outhouse on long winter nights.  The font has two seams, top and bottom, and the metal is so thick as to be almost bulletproof.  A #2 Queen Anne burner is used.  When I bought this lamp on eBay it was supremely ugly, but cleaned up quite well.

The lamp on the right represents the normal cheap lamp available a century ago, made from steel and with a nickel finish.  A normal #2 burner was fitted.  Even though inexpensive, the lines are very pleasing. This lamp was made by P&A Risdon.

The lamp at left is a P&A Risdon table lamp in the process of restoration.  It uses a #2 burner to which is permanently attached the shade ring.  These lamps were more costly, having a weighted base and more intricate, classical configuration that could well have pleased the ancient Greeks.  This lamp had a special inner font - a 2" x 5" galvanized steel cylinder into which the burner was screwed. 

At right is a sterling silver P&A Risdon table lamp with a weighted base.  This lamp was also built using the inner cylinder font system, as it allowed almost any configuration of outer shell to be employed.  Note the unusual, original chimney.  Beside it is a brass whale oil lamp from the 1850's - no chimney, poor light output and horrible smoking characteristics.

At left is a P&A Risdon restaurant wall lamp.  This lamp also used the inner cylinder font system.  Construction is brass plated steel for durability, plus the gimbaled wall mount to compensate for being knocked about.  The unusual original chimney fit perfectly within the upper ring and thus had an excellent chance for survival.  The disadvantage of the small inner cylinder was a 3 or 4 hour burn time.

At right is a tiny brass "finger" night light.  This lamp used a 3/8" wide wick and produced feeble light, but was sufficient to allow one to safely navigate dark halls and stairways.  The base of the lamp was also a spill tray, a nice safety feature.  Not much light output, but very little fuel consumption.



This is a very rare Wilcox Crittenden lantern made under contract for the US Navy in 1942.  WC made marine hardware, not railroad lamps, and they were not made for sale to the public.  This metal lamp, owned by a friend of mine, is absolutely pristine, unused, in the original box. 

The body is steel with extremely heavy galvanizing, and without the bottom protective grillwork which is virtually a signature feature of railroad lanterns.  Railroad lamp buffs will notice the similarity of the burner to those used on Adlake railroad lanterns, but the winding stem is considerably shorter and the font itself is of a different design and construction.  The red globe has a reduced top section, unlike Adlake and Dressel chimneys, and does not have a focusing fresnel.

At right is a classic Dressel railroad lantern.  Note the traditional sturdy protective grillwork, particularly at the bottom of the lamp, and contrast this with the Wilcox Crittenden naval dock lamp above.  The lens is interchangeable with a red lens with a focusing Fresnel. 

This particular specimen is unfired and in perfect condition.  Stamped Dressel, Arlington, NJ, for the N.Y.C.S. railroad.

At right is a British carriage lamp. Far right shows the red lens at the rear of the lamp and the font and burner assembly.  There are no side jewels, as this particular lamp has brackets on both sides for mounting on either side of a carriage.  The name plate is marked J & R Oldfield Ltd, Birmingham, England.  Pat. # 843 / 1913.  This is a large lamp, 12" tall, and the clear lens is 4 1/2" diameter.

"Solar" bicycle lamp, made by The Badger Brass Mfg Co, Kenosha, Wis.  The jewel lenses on either side are red, with no lens in the back.  The photo above left shows the font and burner removed.  The photo center shows the lamp in operation, with the reflector working as intended.  The photo above right shows the ground red lens on the right side, below which is the wick raising knob and font release clasp.


"Lampe Pigeon, Garinte, Veritable, Inexplosible Essence Minerable, Paris, 1885, Securite Maroue." 

Generations of  hands have worn this copper lamp down, but it still works perfectly.  Low light output, perfect for a night light.  The font is filled with batting to prevent fuel sloshing when carried, but kerosene precipitates paraffin. After a century of use, paraffin had coated the batting to such an extent that fuel could not be absorbed!  I filled a 3 pound coffee can with water, inserted the font, and boiled for an hour over a Haller stove.  The paraffin dissolved, floated to the surface, and poured off easily.  Now it works!

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Early American Metal Font & Specialty Lamps

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