|Original mid-19th Century Tinware Fluid Lamps|
(not from my collection)
Image From Online Auction, Source Unknown
As followers of my blog know, I love to practice my own version of experimental archaeology by reproducing past objects and learning from their use. For this fluid lamp exercise, I needed to put on my tinsmith hat and make a good effort with the minimal tools I have. If only I had a tinshop !
|My Replica Lamps|
Photos by Author 2012
The key to learning about early to mid-19th century fluid lamps, is to study and understand their burners. Each type of fuel needed a specific style of burner to give the best light. For this exercise, I wanted to explore Whale or Sperm Oil burners, Camphene or Burning Fluid burners, Lard Oil burners and Fat lamp burners. Even though some of these fuels are oblsolete, I wanted to faithfully replicate the burners, in order to understand how they evolved. For the time being, substitue fuels would have to do.
|My Betty Lamp|
My quest started with the Betty Lamp. The classic Betty Lamp has an ancestry extending clear back to the Romans but had been improved on over time. The name "Betty" itself may have originated from the German word for "better". In this twilight period of its long history, it was still giving service as one of the humblest of lighting devices.
|Nice Original Tinware Betty|
Online Auction Source Unknown
What I learned from my replica is that the wick channel has to be mounted to the inside bottom of the lamp only and not touch anywhere else. That way it transfers the heat of the flame down through the channel to the fat. By keeping the fat in a liquid state, it allows the wick to do its job.
|Lid Open, Showing Wick Channel|
On My Replica
My lamp gave a constant, fairly bright light and wasn't smokey or smelly, even though the fuel I used was strained bacon fat. Maybe lesser quality fats gave the poor results that you read about. I think it's a great little lamp and will continue to use it.
|My Whale Oil Lamp|
The Whale Oil lamp is probably the most recognizable lamp style that pre-dates kerosene. Whale Oil itself was the "first" commercially produced oil and was considered the premier fuel for illumination. This precious commodity was rendered from the blubber and parts of Baleen or other whales, whereas Sperm Oil was derived from the heads of Sperm Whales. Whale Oil wasn't cheap, running as much as $2 a gallon in the mid-1800's.
|The Original Lamp |
That Inspired My Replica
Online Auction Source Unknown
The typical Whale Oil burner used vertical tubes that sometimes flared under their base mount and extended down towards the fuel. This extended length would transfer a little warmth to the fuel and help it to wick properly.
|Whale Oil Lamp Burner|
Note the Extended Tube
Whale Oil burner tubes often have little slots cut in them, to help advance the wick with a pick. Most surviving original burners have two tubes but you do see singles. The rarest styles seem to be three and four tube burners. For my replica's pattern, I chose a Whale Oil lamp version of a candle stick. The upright "candle" is actually the fuel reservoir, which extends into the base. To one side of the base is a matchsafe with a striker lid. Way cool !!
|My Lard Oil Lamp|
Note the Wick Pick on Chain
Next in line is the Lard or Lard Oil Lamp, which in its time, was a cost-effective alternative to the Whale Oil lamp. Lard "Oil" was expressed from solid lard, but still needed to be warmed, to improve its fluidity. This need gave rise to many patented varietys of burners, each intent on improving the efficiency of the fuel. For my replica, I made a version of Archer's Patented Burner of 1842.
|The Original Archer Type Burner|
That Inspired My Replica
Image Courtesy The Old Time Lamp Shop
A copper tube, mounted between the two flat burner tubes, transfers the heat all the way to the bottom of the reservoir. Many times you will see Lard Oil lamps mis-identified as Whale Oil lamps. The clue to their identity, is in the extended burner design.
|My Replica Lard Oil Burner|
Based on Archer's Patent
For my replica, I ended up using canola oil as a substitue fuel. I tried using solid Lard but it didn't work very well. Lard oil is a little hard to find, even though it's occasionally used by machinists as a lubricant. Just for fun, I painted the lamp with asphaltum varnish, a typical finish on tinware of the period.
|My Camphene Lamp|
Note the Burner Caps on Chains
The final lamp in this project is the Camphene or Burning Fluid Lamp. Camphene was the rectified oil of turpentine and was sometimes mixed with alcohol to make lamp fuel. Although Camphene gave a cheap bright light, it came with a risk. It was very explosive and needed a specifically designed burner. Camphene burners have long tapered tubes that when in sets, angle out from each other to dissipate the heat of the flame.
|My Camphene Burner|
These tubes never extend down past the mounting plate and never have slots for wick adjustment. Apparently, any heat added to the fuel caused an accumulation of gases and the possibility of an explosion. Yikes !! Most surviving original burners have little covers to snuff out the flame and keep the fuel from evaporating. The style of lamp I chose to replicate is sometimes called a petticoat lamp by collectors for the flared shape of the base. Camphene lamps are often mislabeled as Whale Oil lamps but the difference is obvious once you know your burners. In case you wondered, my lamp burns modern lamp oil as I don't need to kill myself in the pursuit of history.
|A Classic Original Camphene Lamp|
Online Image Source Unknown
By the time of the Civil War, all of these fluid lamps were fading from the scene, as the Age of Kerosene began . Untold numbers of patented burner improvements would help make this "new" cheap fuel the most popular choice in the world. It's still the dependable choice I make every time we have one of our routine power outages but after this lamp project, that fat burning Betty Lamp is looking pretty sweet.
For more information on early lighting, I would suggest these great sites:
The Rushlight Club has been supporting the serious study early lighting
James and Beth Boyle have a lot of great info on their Rams Horn Studio
The Old Time Lamp Shop has a lot of great photos of rare lamps and well
worth the visit