108 Years and Still Burning Bright
By Maxine Carter-Lome
The story goes that while growing up in a sod farmhouse a few miles south of Minden, Nebraska, Victor Samuel Johnson attended to his studies by the dim flame of a kerosene lamp. Those studies paid off. By the age of 22, he held the position of bookkeeper and salesman for the Iowa Soap Company in Burlington, Iowa. Just one year later, Johnson experienced the brighter, more luminescent light that was produced by a mantle lamp created by Eckel & Glinicke in Germany, the “Practicus.” Johnson remembered the difficulties of keeping up with his studies by the less brilliant kerosene lamp and saw an opportunity in his future.
Having obtained the rights to sell Practicus mantles and other foreign alcohol-burning lamps in America, Johnson formed the Western Lighting Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1907. In 1908, he moved the business to a more centralized location in Chicago. Thus, the Mantle Lamp Company of America (later to become “Aladdin Industries Inc.”) was established.
Properly adjusted, the Practicus produced white light of about 60 candlepower. The burner was designed to fit common American-made lamp fonts; however, the Practicus, with its single wire mantle support, often went out of adjustment, required constant attention, and the slim chimneys cracked. As a result of these shortcomings, Johnson searched for a better mantle lamp. The Aladdin lamp (the name derived from the famous story, Aladdin) became a reality when Johnson acquired improved center-draft burners patented by Charles E. Wirth which helped to provide “better light for better sight.”
The use of a round wick to provide an even steady flame, and a rare earth mantle that glowed to produce the light of a 60-watt light bulb when heated by the flame from the kerosene lamp, made Aladdin unique among other kerosene-burning lamps. Johnson trademarked the Aladdin lamp in 1908 and introduced it to the public in early 1909. Initial sales of the Aladdin were beyond all expectations. It was so much more efficient than other mantle lamps – to say nothing of the conventional flat and round wick lamps of the day – that it quickly made other kerosene lamps obsolete.
Aladdin was also one of the pioneers in modern sales techniques. They were one of the first companies to use radio as an advertising medium in the Midwest. They paid Henry Field, who owned the Henry Field Seed Company of Shenandoah, Iowa along with a 1000 watt station KFNF, five hundred dollars to talk about their lamp on his “Evening Letterbasket” program. Included in the program was a cash offer of twenty-five dollars for the best ten-word slogan submitted. The response was 2200 letters and 800 of those didn’t even submit a slogan – they just wanted more information on the lamp! As radio grew so did Aladdin’s coverage until it covered the nation.
Aladdin salesmen identified homes without mantle lamps by the poor light of other lamps, and offered the homeowner an Aladdin lamp with fuel to use for one week, no-cost, no-risk in-home trial. After the trial period, the homeowner could return the lamp, no questions asked, or purchase it. The vast majority ended up spending the $4.50 or more for an Aladdin lamp to replace their 25-cent wick lamps because it proved to be economical to use, safe, a quality product and generated a distinct difference in the amount of light produced. They also allowed customers to trade in their old oil lamps for new Aladdin lamps.
In 1915 after Aladdin won a Gold Medal at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco for having the best kerosene lamp in the world with their model 6 Aladdin lamp, the company used the honor to advertise a $1,000 reward to anyone who could prove that another lamp was better. The money was never paid out, and by the early 1930s, seven million Aladdin lamps had been sold!
Over the years Aladdin lamps were manufactured in a wide variety of styles. The first were made of metal, either brass or nickel plated brass. There were several models of the metal lamps including table lamps, bracket lamps, and some very unusual hanging lamps. The 1930s and 40s saw lamps made of colored glass, and included the now much sought after ruby crystal and cobalt blue, tall Lincoln drape Aladdin lamps. During this period the Company also introduced Aladdin brand electric lamps.
One hundred and eight years after Victor S. Johnson’s first trademarked and branded the lamp, Aladdin kerosene incandescent lamps are still being made. Kerosene lamps today light cabins, provide emergency light when the power is off, and provide ambiance in collectors’ homes. The Aladdin burner is also the heart in heaters and refrigerators. There have been significant changes made in recent years but Aladdin lamps still burn bright in collectors’ hearts.