In Praise of Coal Oil Lanterns

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


| November 1999



An early catalog offering.

An early catalog offering.

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.)