Friday, May 02, 2014

Whale Oil Lamps

It's no secret that I love antiques. I tend to buy mainly small furniture, tools, and clocks (too many to count), but I also really love antique lamps.

I have quite a few oil lamps, some found at yard sales and thrift stores, while others were bought online.

My favourites are whale oil lamps.

If you're not familiar with these, they were one of the first "fancy" oil lamps created for home illumination. Before they came along, indoor lighting was done mainly with candles, a fireplace, and betty lamps (lard/fat lamps). The latter being crudely fashioned from sheet metal or cast iron.

I should stress that at the time when they came along (1820s to the early 1840s) kerosene lamps had not been invented yet.

The original fuel for these new lamps was refined oil from the sperm whale. The oil was very expensive to buy, but produced a beautiful and brilliant light. One whale oil lamp produced twice as much light as a regular candle, and the lamps were also a bit of a status symbol.

The majority of these lamps are made from leaded glass or flint glass (aka crystal), which gives a bit of a greyish quality to the glass. The lead content makes them more brilliant and also easier to cut and polish. They are also more fragile, and the bases are very prone to chipping (both my lamps shown below have chipped bases). It is not uncommon to find lamps that have been ground-down and re-polished on the base, or that have had chips repaired.

Some early examples have hand blown fonts (often in the shape of a light bulb) while others have cut and polished fonts, or feature acid etched decorations, usually paired with a cast (fancy) base connected with glass "wafers" in the centre. The presence of wafers in the centre is usually a good indicator of an original lamp since reproductions are usually cast from moulds and will not be made in 2 pieces.

These are a few examples of some beautiful (and pricey) examples:

Note the slightly uneven wafers in between the hand blown tops and cast bases:

It is extremely common to find whale oil lamps with later "fluid lamp" burners. These burners have longer tapered pipes and are meant to burn a volatile (and potentially explosive) mixture of turpentine and alcohol known as "burning fluid". Burning fluid was a cheaper alternative to whale oil, but it was critical to use the correct burners. Whale oil burners have short and stubby tubes that descend deep into the font (to help draw down the heat and soften the whale oil). Burning fluid, when used with whale oil burners, often caused catastrophic explosions, since the correct burners operate with the pipes extended far away from the highly flammable fuel.

Fluid burners usually also have cute little caps and chains to keep the fluid from evaporating when the lamp is not in use.

Perfect examples with no chips or breaks can cost a small fortune (several hundred dollars), with matched pairs fetching more than individual lamps, but there are still bargains out there. I was very lucky to snatch this matched pair for a very low price since they were missing the original burners, and had chipped bases (which I don't mind).

Here are my matched pair of lamps. You will note that my lamps have the same cast base as the example above. Aside from this original pair from the early 1800s, I also have 2 reproduction whale oil lamps, and one other original one (missing the burner - which is an odd size).

I shot a small video for YouTube this evening showing the use/operation/lighting of whale oil lamps, since the web seems to have a very limited resource showcasing these wonderful lamps. Enjoy!


  1. Very nice lamps. I've never seen this kind of design. It seems,you come easily to the old stuff. What's your secret? Thumbs up.

  2. Thanks! Reading and learning is my "secret". I have an interest in early lighting, so I've read-up on the subject. Whale oil lamps are not too hard to find (eBay).

  3. You wouldn't have a pewter single tube burner with collar laying around that you maight want to sell?

    1. Sadly no. Pewter burners are incredibly difficult to match-up. Normally you need to find a set (either a new repro set, or a set from a broken lamp). Your best bet is to scour eBay for an old one, but even then, when it comes to pewter, you might need to buy 3 or 4 different ones before you find a match.

      I do have brass ones made to fit standard 7/8 fine threading (number 1) lamps.