The oldest form of lighting is the oil lamp. In its simplest form - a wick floating in a saucer of oil - it has been around for thousands of years, and better models were available even in ancient times


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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Collectibles > Regency Hanging Lamps

History of Victorian Oil Lamps




Regency Hanging Lamps


 Improved types of oil lamp revolutionized lighting in the Regency period, dispelling gloom and making living rooms more cheerful and congenial places.

 The oldest form of lighting is the oil lamp. In its simplest form - a wick floating in a saucer of oil - it has been around for thousands of years, and better models were available even in ancient times.

 In the Regency period, early in the 19th century, there were three main forms of lighting - oil lamps, candles and rushlights. Oil lamps were not the favoured form of lighting, as they had serious disadvantages. Their smell was unpleasant - especially if they burnt fish oil - and they could be smoky. Ceilings were often blackened with sooty deposits.

 Filling and cleaning oil lamps and trimming their wicks made them tiresome to maintain. But their greatest disadvantage was that they could be more expensive than good quality beeswax candles without giving much more light. On grand occasions hosts and hostesses displayed their wealth by lighting rooms with hundreds of candles blazing in splendid glass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.

 Although many elaborate and beautiful lamps, often with multiple spouts, were made througbout the ages, until the 18th century there were only minor advances in oil-lamp technology. Among other improvements, the plaited cotton wick was introduced.


 The major breakthrough came in 1783, when Aime Argand, a Swiss scientist, in vented a new kind of burner with a circular wick encased between two metal tubes. Air rose through the hollow centre of the inner tube, allowing a flame to burn on the inner surface of the cylindrical wick as well as on the outer surface; soon a glass funnel was added to protect the flame and increase the updraught. The Argand lamp gave about ten times the light of earlier oil lamps and burnt with a cleaner flame. It did, though, use more fuel.

 The inventor James Watt and his partner Matthew Boulton made Argand lamps at their Soho Plate Co in Birmingham from 1784 onwards, and, once the patent was revoked, other manufacturers soon followed suit. Boulton continued to make the lamps in large quantities, mostly in fused plate and ormolu.

 Further improvements were incorporated in the Carcel lamp, which was invented in 1800 and had a clockwork pump for raising and feeding in the oil, and in the Moderator lamp of 1836, which had a spring-loaded piston to feed fuel under pressure. These advances made it possible to light rooms more brightly than before, at a fraction of the cost.

 The Regency also gave birth to an even more revolutionary form of lighting, using coal gas. This was developed from 1792 by the engineer Richard Murdoch and taken up by his employers Boulton and Watt. By 1815 many London streets were gas-lit, and by the mid-i 9th century gas lighting had become common in city homes. But oil lamps of the type pioneered in the Regency period survived for a surprisingly long time, finally succumbing late in the 19th century to competition from gas, electricity and the paraffin lamp.

 Hanging ball lights were often illuminated by candles rather than oil. These elegant lights, now converted for use with electricity, often still grace a hallway but can look equally good in a high ceiling room.


 The demand for oil lamps for the table continued unabated in the Victorian period, even after gas lights had replaced oil lamps for wall and ceiling lighting. Production was encouraged hy the introduction in 1847 of a new oil, paraffin, which was less liable to clog than coiza oil, and which also rose up the wick by capillary action, making it possible to create a more discreet reservoir.

 Regency lamps using colza oil - particularly the Argand, Astral and Carcel and the slightly later Moderator - are less commonly found than Victorian ones and therefore fetch higher prices. Hanging oil lamps are much rarer than tahle lamps because they were superseded early on by gas and then electricity. Many that survive have been converted to electricity.

 This offends some purists but is a positive advantage in the eyes of those who like to make their treasures a part of their way of life. In any event, lamps run on colza oil are not likely to be in working order, since burning this heavy fluid left thick deposits inside the burner which clogged the winding mechanism; most of them, twisted by impatient owners or their servants, eventually snapped. If you are thinking of buying an early lamp, check whether it works or can be made to work.

 If a hanging light has been converted for use with electricity you will want to know that it is safe to use. If in any doubt, do consult an expert and get it re-wired if necessary.

 For preference, choose a lamp that has been sympathetically converted, although you can of course replace fittings with reproduction ones. Chains can also be replaced if they are tarnished, rusty or damaged. Architectural salvage stores often have suitable replacements. So too do bric-a-brac shops, and you can usually buy repro chains at lighting shops.



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