VICTORIAN OIL LAMPS
The varied activities of the Victorian borne required a selection of oil lamps almost as comprehensive as today's range of electric lighting.
Paraffin lamps were introduced in the 1860s, superseding lamps burning colza
oil. Paraffin was clean, it did not clog up the works, and, most importantly, all that was needed to deliver it to the burner was the capillary action of a good cotton wick. Although paraffin had been extracted from oil shale in Scotland in the 1840s, it was not until oil started gushing out of the ground in
Tennessee and Texas in 1859 that it became cheap and plentiful enough for widespread commercial use.
NEW LAMP DESIGNS
The next 20 years saw countless improvements and variations in the design of oil lamps. In England one of the most influential was the duplex burner which used two parallel wicks - a system still employed in modern paraffin lamps. Other lamps which sold in huge numbers were the Kosmos, which used a flat
wick wrapped round a circular burner, and the Veritas central draught burner found on most of the larger monumental table lamps of the period. The manufacturers claimed that the most powerful Veritas burner gave off 200 candle power of light.
There was an enormous range of different lamps, each designed for a specific purpose, available to the Victorian buyer. At one end of the market were simple portable hand lamps with a candle like that of a chamber stick; at the other, enormous ornate cast-iron suspension lamps. In between there were table lamps of all
sizes, standard lamps which could be raised and lowered telescopically, vestibule lamps like hanging lanterns, swing bracket lamps, night lights for the nursery, even pulpit lamps and tiny piano lamps which fitted on the candle sconces flanking the music stand.
GLASS LAMP SHADES
The decoration of the body of the lamp was often reflected in that of the shade, which could
be globe-, dome- or tulip-shaped. Plain everyday shades were of semi-translucent 'opal' glass, but lamps expected to make a show in the best rooms had good-quality glass shades, often tinted, with etched or sandblasted floral patterns. Alternatively, they could be moulded with shell-like spirals or fluting.
In the servants' quarters, in rooms like the kitchen or the servants' hall, the oil lamps would have been cheap and functional - either hand lamps or harp lamps (the simplest form of hanging lamp), which could be moved about from place to place. They were suspended by a single shaped loop of strong wire or wrought iron, with a reflecting shade fitted over the top of the chimney.
A good Victorian table lamp is both solid and elegant and will enhance the look of a dinner table or a sitting room. Many models now available have been fitted with sockets for use with electric light bulbs.
In the cheapest lamps, the fount, which holds the fuel, will be of the same material as the rest of the lamp - brass or cast iron, for example. More decorative lamps use glass: plain, with etched or painted decoration, or tinted in delicate colours. The finest table lamps have magnificent cut-glass founts, often standing on top of an Ionic or Corinthian column of brass, bronze or silver plate.
Particularly fine table lamps are often made of pottery or porcelain. Some of the lamps made in Doulton's salt-glazed stoneware are works of art, as individualistic as many vases Doulton was producing at the time. Leading porcelain companies like Royal Worcester produced pairs of urn-shaped lamps, beautifully decorated in the style of their well-known tablewares, to grace the table and match their exquisite dinner
Lamps, whether made of marble and gilded bronze or of cheap japanned metal, are extremely vulnerable to accidents. Glass shades are often broken and have been replaced: check that they fit and are in keeping. The fragile chimneys are particularly vulnerable to breakage, so the same applies to them. Every working oil lamp has have the correct chimney fitted, otherwise air will not circulate efficiently. Each make and size of chimney has a slightly different bulge near the base. Today, excellent repro chimneys are available.
Many decorative old lamps have, of course, been converted for use with electric light bulbs. These can look beautiful and so, too, can the unvamped originals, whether they are filled with oil and lit or used simply for display.