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Two Brass Lamps...

In 1906, the antiquarian William Davis of Plymouth, Massachusetts, recalled a room in his childhood home "in which the family spent their evenings around the square center table, lighted perhaps by two brass lamps..." Two brass lamps? Two lamps that provided no more than two candlepower to light an entire room?

It is a rare thing today to pursue one's daily work without the benefit of intense electric illumination. Our night sky is so saturated with light that even in suburban areas one can seldom enjoy the Milky Way. As a result, it is hard to imagine the days when one or two single flames were considered sufficient for an evening of reading, sewing, card playing, or conversation; when people made their way to the bed chamber, the barn, the privy, or the home of a neighbor by the light of a full moon or a lantern; and daytime illumination was unheard of. Yet, this was the standard in most New England homes until the eve of the Civil War.

In early nineteenth-century America, the alternative to the candle as a lighting source was a lamp that burned either whale oil or an explosive and dangerous mixture of turpentine and alcohol known as "burning fluid." The latter was patented by Isaiah Jennings in New York in 1830 and known in several later variants as "camphene." The lamps intended for burning fluid were the same as those for whale oil, differing only in having burners with long wick tubes set at an angle so as to burn separately and reduce the risk of explosion. These were fitted with removable caps, secured to the body of the lamp by chains, intended to prevent or at least reduce the evaporation of fuel. Almost unbelievably, a burning fluid lamp produced a dimmer light than a tallow candle or a single wick whale oil lamp, yet they enjoyed some degree of popularity.

Although they were all one of these two basic types, the quantity and variety of simple oil lamps available in New England during this period are remarkable. Some were undoubtedly imported from England, where Birmingham was a major manufacturing center; many more were made by pewter or britannia makers in Portland, Maine; Taunton, Massachusetts; or in the glass houses of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Whether of brass, glass, japanned tin, or pewter, they featured enclosed fonts, or fuel reservoirs, raised above bases that were wide enough to ensure the stability of the lighted burner. Burners for either whale oil or burning fluid could be screwed into threaded sockets that were integral in brass or pewter lamps or into threaded metal sockets fitted into the necks of glass lamps. Whichever fuel was to be used, these burners were made with either single, double, or triple wick tubes, thus making available a choice of three different intensities of light, with related variations in fuel consumption.

Some lamps, known today as peg lamps, were just fonts and burners mounted on a socket base that could be inserted into a candlestick. Many of the metal lamps were made with shafts and bases resembling candlesticks; indeed, the manufacturers may have used candlestick molds in their production, replacing the candle cups with fonts that were threaded for the insertion of burners. Glass lamps, too, sometimes had shafts that looked like something other than a lamp, notably the small lamps known in the nineteenth century as "button stem short" lamps and called "wineglass-base" lamps today.

SPNEA's collections have recently been enhanced by the acquisition of several hundred lamps, part of the lighting collection of Carleton Watkins, given by his grandson, the late C. Malcolm Watkins of Middleboro, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. The majority of the lighting devices in the Watkins collection are technologically simple, designed to hold just one or two flames derived from animal or vegetable fat in the form of candles or oil. Like many of the early twentieth-century New England collections of lighting devices, this core collection is expanded with "Roman" fat lamps, rushlight holders, a few kerosene and gas lamps, and some early electric light bulbs. The significance of the Watkins collection, though, is the quantity and great variety of relatively inexpensive lighting devices dating from the first half of the nineteenth century and used in New England homes mostly within a ninety-mile radius of Watkins's home.

These lamps were the standard lighting devices in middle-class New England homes of the period. Although contemporary illustrations often feature more expensive and fashionable center table lamps, it is clear from probate inventories as well as from merchants' and manufacturers' records that the smaller, simpler, less expensive lamps represented in the Watkins collection were much more widely used. They provided a steady and reliable light source, less likely to flicker than tallow candles. The enclosed oil fonts were designed to prevent spillage, so that if a lamp tipped over, it made less mess than candle drippings, although there was still the danger of fire.

Image02Inexpensive in their own day, these lighting devices were still inexpensive when Watkins collected them. The prices he paid ranged from twenty-five cents to five dollars. A frugal man, he avoided collecting the expensive Argand lamps and gas lights that had been used in wealthy homes, thus giving his collection a socio-economic focus that is particularly valuable today.

As the source of the light that drew the family together in the evening, these small lamps also became powerful symbols of domesticity. An example of this can be seen in the March 1868 application of Mrs. Eliza Roderick, the seventy-year-old widow of a Portuguese sailor, who had once "lived in comfort" and now sought to enter the Home for Aged Colored Women in Boston. Her application cited her difficult life as a widow who had supported herself by washing and scrubbing; she entered the home "bringing, with pious care, two useless, but well brightened brass lamps, the sole remnant of the household goods of her cheery, youthful domestic hearth." Only forty-two years separate this experience from William Davis's memoir of childhood. The record of Mrs. Roderick's stubborn possession and almost ritual polishing of her brass lamps underscores their iconic value in her desperate widowhood at the same time that it helps to validate Davis's memory and the centrality of the experience of New Englanders of all social and economic classes in the first half of the nineteenth century.

-Jane C. Nylander
President Emerita


TOP  Whale oil and burning fluid lamps from the Watkins collection typify early nineteenth-century form.

ABOVE RIGHT  Another Whale Oil Lamp. Photograph by David Carmack

Two Brass Lamps...