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For The Home

Antique Lanterns

Author: Maria Matson
Issue: October, 2013, Page 32
Photos by David B. Moore

Dietz Little Wizard lanterns (pictured) are commonly referred to as hurricane and barn lanterns. Introduced in 1913, they often were used on street barricades before the invention of battery-powered strobe flashers. These antique lanterns typically sport a custom imprint signifying a specific government agency or city.

history, Highlights and helpful Hints

Very soon now, jack-o’-lanterns will start showing up on doorsteps throughout the country. While carving pumpkins is a fun family activity today, the tradition’s origins are much less wholesome. In short, Irish folklore tells of a man named Stingy Jack, a fellow so evil and twisted that he had no problem tricking the devil. Twice.

When Jack died, he was rejected by both heaven and hell, but the devil sent him away with a lump of burning coal to light his way through eternity. It’s said Jack crawled into a carved-out turnip and now roams the Earth looking for somewhere to stay.

To scare away Jack and other evil spirits, the Irish, Scottish and English began carving frightening faces on turnips or potatoes and lighting them from within. When folks from these areas immigrated to the U.S., they carried on with the tradition. But in their new homeland, they carved pumpkins.

Lanterns play a part in holidays and festivities in other cultures as well. The star-shaped parol lantern, for instance, is a symbol of Christmas in the Philippines. In Mexico and the American Southwest, luminarias—paper bags filled with sand and candles—also symbolize the Christmas season. In Florence, Italy, the Festa della Rificolona is a somewhat raucous celebration of the birth of the Virgin Mary. People carry lighted paper lanterns while young onlookers try to take them down with spit wads or peashooters, causing the lanterns to burn. In the German-speaking countries of Europe, children celebrate St. Martin’s Day, or Martinstag, by carrying paper lanterns while going house to house, singing in exchange for candy or other small gifts.

This French copper lantern is more than 100 years old and boasts decorative leaves.
Perhaps the oldest celebration of them all is the Chinese Lantern Festival. Originating some 2,000 years ago, the festival is a time to appreciate the full moon and bring families together to eat special treats and watch traditional dances. Lanterns, often with riddles pasted to them, line streets, parks and private homes. Guess correctly and you get a prize.

But lanterns are not just about the good times. Before electricity lit up our lives, people created light with whatever was available, be it fireflies, beeswax, whale oil, olive oil, gas or kerosene. Portable lanterns were, for a time, a common way to illuminate the night. Depending on the era and available materials, these might have been made with wood, bamboo or metal frames joined by silk, paper, animal hide or glass to shield the flame from the wind. Designs became more refined—and reliable—as new lighting fuels were discovered and society’s needs grew. Oil-burning street lights in colonial Philadelphia, for example, had to be cleaned of soot regularly until Benjamin Franklin redesigned them to include ventilation at the top and bottom. By the early 1800s, most U.S. towns had gas lighting. Today, modern-day retailers are helping to keep the early lighting designs alive.

“We have templates of traditional English and French lantern designs that have been passed down in the lighting industry from generation to generation,” says Chris West, director of sales and design at Pentimento Lighting in Mesa, Arizona. “A lot of them are based on old-fashioned carriage lights that were used on the actual carriages that transported people from one location to another. As the templates are passed down, each lantern maker tweaks the design with his or her own style and unique way of making them. For example, we’ve taken some of those templates and added a Southwestern flavor to them.”

Carriage lights tend to be on the small side and usually were hung from brackets to keep the flame away from combustible materials. West says they use “carriage-like” terminology to reflect the roots of their designs, but the fixtures themselves can be customized for any need.

This English copper lantern was made in 1900. It is not uncommon for older pieces like this one to lose their more fragile parts, such as the glass.
As collectibles go, it is portable lanterns—picture a good ol’ Coleman—that people go for. The basic parts of an oil- or gas-burning lantern are the bail, burner, fount, frame, ventilator and globe. In other words, and in order: the handle, the wick holder, the fuel container, the metal frame, the vent where hot air escapes and the glass. From this basic model, the shape, size, color and accoutrements vary, depending on the lantern’s intended use.

Ship lanterns, for example, have specific telltale traits. Produced for the U.S. Navy during World War I, “deck” and “dark” lanterns are notable for tie-down rings on broad bases, both of which helped keep the lanterns in place on rolling seas. Also, instead of a commonly used pear-shaped globe, these brass or tin ship lanterns have cylindrical globes with vertical ribbing. This allows for a shield on the “dark” lantern to be lowered as needed to conceal the light from an enemy. According to, both types of lanterns were likely made at the same time, so the ribbing was consistent for all ship lanterns.

According to Railroadiana Online, a website for collectors of all things having to do with the American railroad, there are five basic types of railroad lanterns: fixed-globe, tall globe, short globe, conductors’ lanterns and inspectors’ lanterns. Of these, fixed-globe versions are the earliest types made, but tall globe types are more collectible, as a wide variety of designs were being manufactured, and many were marked for use by railroads that no longer exist. The most ornate of the five types is the conductors’ lantern. Since this was the lantern most likely to be seen by the traveling public, it was considered important that it convey the importance of the conductor’s role.

In addition to the size of the globe, the color is an important characteristic. Lanterns were used as night signaling devices, and the color of the signal was important to the safe travels of the train. Although the signals varied by line, red likely meant “stop” and green “go.” A blue globe meant men were at work either under or near the train.

A lantern is defined by its portability as well as the transparent case that protects its light source. In an updated version designed by Louise McDermott Cummings of Antiquities Warehouse in Phoenix, an antique spotlight was mounted onto a tripod and refitted with updated wiring.

A vintage pendant lantern from France features decorative stained- and leaded-glass plates and ornate ironwork.

For the safety of the man at work, only the fellow who put the lantern down could move it, and others were not permitted to block it in any way. A rare find for collectors is a two-toned globe on a conductors’ lantern. This has a colored upper portion (usually green) that shielded passengers’ eyes from the bright, white lower light as tickets were being collected.

In the harsh arctic environment of Alaska, lanterns played a role in the business of sled-dog freighting. During the 1800s and until the mid-1900s, mushers and their dog teams delivered supplies and mail between villages. A kerosene lantern with a red globe was lit and set out at the destination and was not extinguished until the team arrived safely. In honor of this tradition, the Iditarod Trail Committee sets out a red “Widow’s Lamp” at the finish line of each year’s race. It is not extinguished until the last team crosses the finish line. Similarly, the last team to cross the finish line in an Alaskan sled-dog race is awarded a “Red Lantern.”

Antique lanterns, both stationary and portable, can be found retrofitted with electric lighting. Sticklers for authenticity should ensure an antique lantern has been professionally restored before lighting a match to it.
See Sources.

Where to buy
Antiques on Central, Phoenix; Antiquities Warehouse, Phoenix; Brass Armadillo, Phoenix;; Fig’s Home & Garden, Phoenix;; Pentimento Lighting, Mesa; Phoenix Lamps—Shades, Repairs and Antiques, Phoenix; Relics, Phoenix; Trouvé, Scottsdale.

Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Filled with a grouping of candles, this French lantern from the 1920s still boasts its original glass. The piece also can be hung as a wall sconce. • Designed by Louise McDermott Cummings of Antiquities Warehouse, this fixture features a vintage ship light fitted onto a tripod. • Two zinc Italian Gothic lanterns. The pair has been updated to accommodate electric bulbs. • Hailing from France, this vintage glass hall pendant can be set with either traditional or battery-lit candles.

Paul Revere’s Ride
It would seem almost un-American not to mention Paul Revere’s famous ride in a conversation about lanterns. Although it’s known he didn’t coin the phrase “One, if by land, and two, if by sea,” Revere did devise the plan for the lantern signals. According to the Paul Revere Heritage Project, days before he was set to ride to Lexington to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that the British were planning to arrest them and destroy ammunition and supplies, Revere arranged for the lantern lighting in the steeple of the Old North church as a signal to other patriots, in case he was captured and unable to embark on his ride.

Safety First
• As with any open flame, don’t leave burning lanterns unattended and keep them away from flammable items.
• Always set lanterns on a stable, level surface so that there is no danger of them tipping or being knocked over.
• Keep an eye on the flame. If it starts to burn orange, the oil is burning too hot and fast, which can damage an antique lantern. Turn the flame down until it becomes blue.
• Kerosene lamps are meant to burn kerosene, so avoid substitutions.
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