Skip to main content
ISU University Museums
Main Content

The History of the Kerosene Lamp

Posted on April 24, 2020 at 4:30 PM by Allison Sheridan

The history of illumination can be explored through objects found in the permanent collection, from Persian pottery tallow lamps and glass whale oil lamps, to electrified Tiffany Art Nouveau table lamps and the contemporary Lobmeyr “Met” chandeliers. The collection also includes the Victorian era glass kerosene lamp pictured in a radiant and unique bright blue color. 

Oil and oil lamps have been utilized for centuries with the earliest discovered lamps dating from 9th century Persia. Historically these lamps were illuminated by vegetable oils, tallow or animal fat. Illumination in the 1800's to early 1900's changed drastically as new sources of fuel spurred adaptation and innovation. 

In the 1700's and early 1800's, whale oil was the fuel of choice for its clean and virtually odorless burning and commercial capability. Glass whale oil lamps were created by many companies, but the most sought after include those made of flint glass at the Sandwich Glass Factory, Sandwich, Mass. The perilous long hunts and multi-step expensive processing eventually lead to the over-hunting of whales to meet demand. Alternative sustainable fuels needed to be explored and manufactured on a larger scale by the Civil War Era.

Enter Kerosene, an innovation of Abraham Gesner who began distilling coal in 1846 to produce a clear liquid that produced a bright flame when used to power a traditional oil lamp. He called his new fuel kerosene after the Greek word “keroselaion.” Within the decade, it was discovered that kerosene could be extracted from petroleum making the production as a fuel more viable and sustainable commercially.

Kerosene lamps were used throughout the 19th century as gas lighting was namely reserved for the wealthy and electric lighting was just catching on in rural areas by the late 1800's. Even after electrification, people retained their glass kerosene lamps for emergency uses. With the advent of electrification, many families’ oil lamps were converted to this form of power to retain the historic beauty and design of oil lamps within the home.  

This Victorian era kerosene lamp, produced in the early 1870's by Ripley & Co.of Pittsburgh, PA (1866 – 1891),has twin "Bristol" opaque blue glass lamp bowls connected to one central pillar on a pressed glass base. In the 1700s Bristol, England was producing fine opaque glass often made to imitate porcelain - likely this is where the unique color of the “Bristol blue” glass garnered its name. Collectors of Early American Pattern Glass (EAPG) often call this blue color “starch blue” or “blue alabaster.” The two hurricanes are clear blown glass with etched bands while other fittings are in brass. Between the two lamp bowls is an area for holding matches to light the wick. The foot of the lamp is embossed RIPLEY & CO / PAT. FEB 1ST 1870. This type of lamp is often referred to as a “Marriage Lamp” or “Wedding Lamp” because of the duel lamplight. 

MARK YOUR CALENDARS - Opening in February 2021, the next Farm House Museum exhibition will be“Flicker and Flame: Whale Oil and Kerosene Lamps.” The exhibitionhighlights over 50 glass and ceramic whale oil and kerosene lamps, spills, and match holders from the permanent collection and Iowa Quester Glass Collection. The exhibition will explore the history of whale oil and kerosene lamps, innovations and designs in lamp manufacturing, and reveal the history of illumination at the Farm House Museum. 


IMAGE: “Marriage” Kerosene Lamp, 1870. Manufactured by Ripley & Co., Pittsburgh, PA (1866 – 1891). Pressed and blown glass and brass. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 76.30.105abc

© 2024 University Museums, Iowa State University. All rights reserved.