In Praise of Coal Oil Lanterns

Coal oil lanterns cast light into dark corners for farm families.

An early catalog offering.

An early catalog offering.

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One of the most indispensable and yet most dependable items on the farm was the coal oil lantern. Perhaps no other small appliance took so much punishment and received so little attention as did this sole source of convenient, portable light for farm families. 

The Dietz Company was the largest and principal manufacturer of such lighting fixtures. Their catalogs listed many models of coal oil lanterns. One even had metal reflectors on the back with special clips designed so it could be attached to the dashboard of the buggy to light the way home from town, or from a tryst, perhaps, with a neighborhood damsel.

Farm (or barn) lanterns came with globes in two styles. One was a sphere with two sides chopped off; the other was an elongated glass whose bulging midriff put one in mind of Uncle Walter and his "slipped chest." Dietz also featured a special hunting model. That lantern had a rounded bull's eye molded into the globe so that a beam of concentrated light was available to spot a coon high up a persimmon tree or far out in the corn field, swiping just-about-ready roasting ears.

The Sears and Sawbuck catalog for 1910 had an offer of a bull's eye attachment that could be clipped onto the frame of an ordinary lantern as needed. Incidentally, the best lantern in that book was priced at 87 cents, and if you were so inclined, you might order the bull's eye attachment for an extra 19 cents.

The oval glass bull's eye, either that from a broken lantern globe, or from the more rare clip-on models, could be used to start fires without matches. By turning the flat side toward the sun, a beam of light could be focused, for a very few minutes, onto anything combustible, setting it afire or giving a nasty burn. I still carry the scar on my left wrist from one such experiment.

Stories were told of buggy drivers finding their horses with bad burns caused by the beams of the sun shining through a dangling lantern's bull's eye. The concentrated rays of the rising sun happened to hit the horse's rump just right as it plodded its unerring and unguided way home from an all-night rendezvous, its master asleep or elsewise occupied. (One of the advantages of horse-and-buggy courting was that the buggy had no steering wheel, so the driver could wrap the lines around the whipstock, leaving both hands free, and the horse always found the way home, albeit sometimes a bit later than prudence allowed.)

The coal oil lantern with its yellowish glow was a very efficient, if not very safe, source of light around the barn. (The great Chicago Fire of 1871 is reputed to have been started by Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicking over the lighted lantern as she was being milked in the straw-strewn stall.) Hung on a nail over the cows, it cast weird shadows of old Tabby as he begged and fielded jets of milk from the hand milker, and painted even more exaggerated and grotesque ears on the mules as they stood slouch-hipped in their stalls.

The circle of light from the lantern was quite limited, although this was expanded markedly when the lantern was lifted high. Then, though, the feeble gleam became even dimmer, and the shadows darker.

The heat from the lantern has saved the lives of countless baby chicks, piglets and prematurely born calves. The feeble flame of a coal oil lantern propped up under a well-supported cow blanket keeps a box stall snug and cozy, even when a late and unexpected blizzard rages outside.

The bull's eye was a great help when froggin' along the banks of Muddy Creek. Frogs are infatuated by light, and seem to be hypnotized by the beam of the lantern concentrated through the bull's eye. A frog will sit there, bugeyed and all, and let himself be caught by a hand he cannot see.

Hunters love the bull's eye lantern, for they can spot the gleam of a coon's eye high up in a Sycamore, or catch the flash as the ray of light is reflected from the popped eyes of a white tail buck in season.

Sometimes while I was visiting my cousin Randall in town, we would pay a visit to the big B&O depot and marvel at the array of lanterns being filled with oil, and the globes polished by Mr. Chickadancz, the stationmaster. There were lanterns with red globes, others with green, and still more with clear globes. The most interesting one of all had shutters that could be opened and closed with a lever to spell out telegraph code.

These lanterns had the Dietz trademark stamped in the top and around the oil tank on the bottom, and were embossed with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad name and logo. For years, a railroad lantern with a red globe hung in Dad's shop. It was a relic of the ill-fated Oil Belt Railroad that ran by the Applegate house where Dad and MaMa met.

The railroad crew used the lighted lanterns as signals. When the light was swung back and forth, it meant one thing, and when moved up and down, something else, and when it was swung in a vertical circle, that meant STOP.

Sailors on ships would oft times hoist a lighted lantern to the top of the main mast to ward off evil spirits during a storm, or to call for a breeze when the ship was stalled in the doldrums. The huge brilliant beacons atop the lighthouses along the rocky coasts of New England cast their lifesaving beams far out to sea from a relatively simple oil-fed lantern. Those rays were magnified many times by repeated reflections in the many-faceted mirrors before being flung far out toward the horizon.

Few of my readers will have been on a sailing ship, nor have they climbed the circular steps to inspect the lanterns of the Nantucket Lighthouse, but most likely those with three score winters under their belts have had experiences with the coal oil lantern. It is those experiences and the memories they have generated that I trust have been stirred a bit by these words of mine. FC 

The late Perry Piper was a columnist for newspapers in Illinois and Indiana for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his personal memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.