Life by Lamplight: Collecting Antique Kerosene Lanterns

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Antique kerosene lanterns come in a wide assortment of styles and glass globe colors, although most have clear globes. This is a Dietz railroad lantern with a rare turquoise globe.
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A John A. Hurley lantern.
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Antique farm equipment shows are a great place to showcase an antique lantern collection. This is Dan Sweet's display.
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An 1896 SG & L lantern.
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Hal Corum's display. Hal had 175 lanterns as of 2002.
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Darrell Collins' display, which includes a number of darkroom lanterns with red globes.

Old-time kerosene lanterns pushed back the darkness 100 years ago, and they’re still doing it these days at antique farm equipment shows across the country. The antique lantern-collecting bug bit Dan Sweet about 20 years ago. Today, he can count more than 110 antique kerosene lanterns in his personal collection, and he’s found he enjoys introducing others to the hobby, too.

Dan lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., and says in the late 1970s, he met a man at a Zolfo Springs, Fla., show who had a nice, clean engine display – and three lanterns hanging out front. “Upon arriving home from that show, I went searching in my father’s garage for a lantern that my grandfather had given me on a camping trip while I was in my mid-teens. It was a 1903 Paull’s No. ‘0,’ which is very rare.” Dan got another old lantern from his dad, and after that, he considered himself officially a collector.

“I find lanterns are well accepted at tractor shows; they are relevant to farm life in the early years of tractors,” he says. “Lanterns also give us something to do, and some place to gather after dark, when the tractors are at rest.”

Six or seven years ago, Dan inspired a friend, Hal Corum of Pinellas Park, Fla., to begin collecting kerosene lanterns too. “They’re kind of an ornament – and they’re utilitarian,” Hal says, “and they’re one of the few collectibles my wife will let me keep in the house.” To date, Hal has collected 175 vintage lanterns.

Then four years ago, he and Dan inspired Darrell Collins of Thomasville, Ga., to join them in the hobby. Learning from his friends and on his own, Darrell began building a collection too, and today, he owns nearly 70 antique lanterns, including eight darkroom lanterns, which are a special interest.

All three men take their lanterns to tractor shows, and they’re constantly on the lookout for more. Most antique lanterns on the market today in the United States are either U.S.- made or English-made, according to these collectors. “The main maker was Dietz,” Darrell says, referring to Robert E. Dietz, a New York City native who purchased a small oil lamp business in 1840 in Brooklyn and named it the R.E. Dietz Co. In time, although the company moved to Hong Kong after the founder’s death, Dietz lanterns “were used all over,” Darrell says, and they remain common today.

Other popular collectible brands are Embury, which was made by Embury Manufacturing Co., of Rochester, N.Y., which Dietz eventually bought; Adlake or Adams & Westlake, Ltd., of Elkhart, Ind., and some of the English brands, such as Veritas, Chalwyn, and Bat.

Popular styles among lantern collectors are buggy, barn, and railroad lanterns. Buggy lanterns usually were mounted on the left side or on the front of a horse-drawn vehicle, Dan says, noting those on the front were usually cheaper than the side-mounted style, which usually had a red tail lens. His rarest buggy lantern is a Rayo Pony No. 21. Darrell has a buggy-type lantern with “Sheffield Farms” stamped in the metal and a black Dietz marked “Dietz Junior Wagon Lamp” and equipped with a clip for side mounting.

Darrell says barn lanterns are relatively plentiful, and consequently modestly priced, so they’re a good style for beginners to buy. Dan’s oldest lantern is a barn lantern called a ‘Winfield Standard.’ It was patented in 1880 by the Winfield Manufacturing Co., in Warren, Ohio.

Lanterns referred to specifically as ‘railroad’ lanterns include the Dietz Standard, Vulcan, Steel Clad, No. 6 and the XLCR Switchman’s lantern. Dan explains that railroad lamps have a wire or deep tin base called a ‘bell bottom,’ which provided extra protection for the fuel font when the lantern was set down at rail side.

Railroad lanterns also are the likeliest to have colored globes, which are often the most rare part of a lantern. Clear glass and red are the most common globe colors; amber and cobalt blue are more rare. Cobalt blue was used exclusively by railroad mechanics who had to work under a train; Dan says the rule was that only the man who put the lantern down could move it, or pick it up again.

Hal notes the railroads used lanterns with red, green, yellow or amber, blue, blue/green, green and turquoise globes, ‘and the turquoise showed the furthest at night.’ He owns a Dietz with a turquoise globe; the patent date on that lantern is Dec. 4, 1923, and Hal says the style was made into the 1930s. One of his recent purchases, through eBay, an Internet auction site, is a railroad lantern from New South Wales, Australia, which may have been used on an engine; its globe is clear.

Lanterns used for purposes other than buggy, barn, or railroad lighting are even more rare than those three styles. Dan has a lantern with a red-and-green insert that was reportedly used in the early 1900s by English traffic Bobbies. Although he has not yet found any documentation for that use, he says, “It’s a reasonable story.” Another of his rarest lanterns is a World War I ship’s blackout lantern. That lantern has a sleeve that lifts to effect the blackout, and tie-down rings, which with leather thongs, kept the lantern in one place despite the rolling of the ship with the ocean waves.

Hal owns a rare John A. Hurley Aladdin model with an ‘up and over’ lift lever. “They were only made six or seven years, from about 1907 to 1914,” he says. These were general-purpose lanterns. And Darrell owns some photographer’s darkroom lanterns, which have red and amber glass, and a German-made ‘Super Baby,’ a short lantern, probably used as a construction marker light. He found it, painted an ‘ugly orange,’ at Mule Day in Calvary, Ga., and since has cleaned it up: “I like them to be original, if they’re not too ugly,” he says. “Otherwise, I try to restore them as much as possible to original.”

Darrell says darkroom lanterns were one of the first styles to spark his interest. “I have a collection of old cameras, movie cameras, and projectors, and I was looking for ways to broaden that collection. Then I saw the one (darkroom lantern) that Dan had and that got me looking at trying to acquire one for myself. That was about eight darkroom lanterns ago.”

Municipal and state governments also had lanterns identified with impressions in the metal that are considered very collectible today. Darrell has a green one marked ‘P.D.H.’ for Pennsylvania Department of Highways, and Dan has one embossed ‘Property of the City of St. Petersburg.’ Other much-sought-after collector lanterns include Embury ‘Luck-E-Lites,’ which were all red – including the globe – and used on the backs of trucks, and Adlake ‘Keros,’ one of which Darrel owns. These are short lanterns; his is made of tin and has an amber globe and the letters ‘WM’ stamped into the metal.

Darrell says he’s been attending antique farm equipment shows for five or six years, and every year more lanterns are being exhibited. He buys from a range of sources that includes eBay, other collectors, auctions, shows, and swap meets, and says it seems like values are going up very quickly, thanks mostly to eBay. “The market for kerosene lanterns as collectibles is definitely growing,” Darrell says, recounting that only a few years ago a Dietz Vesta sold for from $20 to $30. “Now, they are better than $100 in most antique stores, but if you are patient, you can still get a good Vesta much cheaper than that.”

He recently bought two Vesta lanterns, one for $30 and one for $45; both were in good condition, and with railroad markings. Although neither lantern had a globe, just 10 minutes earlier, he’d bought a red Vesta globe for $10. “This proves,” he says, “that if you are patient, you can still find some good bargains on lanterns.” FC 

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