Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Friday, November 16, 2012

Shedding a Little Light on a Favorite Subject

     I've been interested in early lighting devices for a very long time. Over the years, I've been lucky enough to find a few original pieces but I wouldn't claim to have a comprehensive collection. I recently decided to explore a few of the many styles of fluid lamps that existed just before the Age of Kerosene and blog on their use.

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



  1. Very nice post I especially like the lard lamp. I always wondered how they got the lard to go into a liquid form. I wonder how good they would work in cold weather.

    How did you get your tinsmith knowledge? Do you have special tools?

    1. Hey Ron,
      Thanks for your interest. I'm no tinsmith but that doesn't stop me from having fun. Totally self-taught and always learning. My tools consist of vise-grip pliers for sheet metal, rawhide mallet, regular pliers with smoothed jaws, tinsnips, soldering iron and various metal shapes and scrap that I can form the tin around, as needed. I think you should give it a try. Good Luck !

  2. Hello, this is Jamie from Oldtimelampshop.com i ran across your blog with the Archer burner you copied from my website. I must say, you did a Wonderful job reproducing the burner!! This is an uncommon burner to find. I have not burned mine due to the inner tube has solidified lard in it that would need removed and I have just left it original. It is great to see others interests and projects with early lighting! Take Care. Jamie

  3. Well, well, the ONLY lamp I built in my life was a survival oil burner made out of an empty sardines tin with a rolled up Kleenex .
    And it really does'nt smell strongly .
    With ten thumbs, this is the Olympos .
    Again, respect for your handicraft !

    Dr. May

  4. Careful with the expression "betty lamp." There really doesn't seem to be any evidence that it was used before the 20th century and it is little more than antique collectors parlance. The "betty" thing being derived from "besser" is pure mythology. Probably the most accurate and way to refer to this type of lighting would be as a 'fat lamp'.

  5. Jim - You seem to be an expert in early American lighting. I work in the chemical industry and I am interested in knowing if and how phosgene (poisonous gas, not flammable) was used in the mid 1800's for lighting. I have found a literature citings stating that phosgene was somehow used for this purpose. In "The Good Lamp is the Best Police Metaphor and Ideologies of the Nineteenth-Century Urban Landscape" by Mark J. Bouman. On page 64 he states "Innovative merchants such as Potter Palmer in Chicago used phosgene lighting to highlight display windows as early as 1852." Also I have found advertisements (several in different cities) in old papers where phosgene is grouped with camphene, wicks and is for sale at local stores: Advertisement in New York Daily Tribune (5-28-1852): "Charles Fuller, dealer, in Jenning's new Patent Premium Safety Gas Lamps. Also, Camphene, Spirit Gas, Oil and Lard Lamps, Hall and other Lanterns, Girandoles, Chandeliers, of the most approved patterns; Britannia and Glass Ware, Cutlery and Fancy Ornaments. Also Camphene, Spirit Gas, Phosgene Gas, Oil, Wicks, Glasses 273 Greenich St. between Warren and Chambers Sts." I have searched the internet and cannot find any additional references to "phosgene lamps". Would you know anything about this type of lamp? Thanks.

  6. I just updated the Wikipedia article on Camphine. The oldest reference to camphine in the Library of Congress digitized old newspaper collection is Baltimore Pilot and Transcript, 1840. It references WEBB’S PATENT BURNERS and claims exclusivity. T. PALMER & CO. "The Camphine Oil to be had at our store only." Looking for info on Webb's Patent Burners.