A Hard-Earned Passion for Victorian Oil Lamps – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – July 2002
By Rod L’Italien
Although I grew up in New England, it was not until April of 1963 that I saw my first oil lamp. It was that year at SiNiChro, Inc. (silver, nickel & chrome ) that the evolution of my passion began. My partner had stripped and polished a few Rayo lamps for an antique dealer, and eventually more dealers found our new shop and brought us more lamps to work on. My passion grew very slowly at first, just asking a few questions here and there. Nine months later, when I decided that I wasn’t cut out to be in a partnership, I took a job offering as manager of Haverhill Plating Co. and sold out to my partner. It was during the four years that I spent at Haverhill Plating, that I developed a wholesale antique lamp business.
I was born in August, 1935, in the town of Newburyport Massachusetts and lived in West Newbury until I was four. One might assume that given the time frame and being born in New England that I cut my teeth on oil lamps; that is quite to the contrary. My passion evolved over a period of years after my first introduction to an oil lamp.
It took a little time to reach that spot in my life. I need to take a little trip down memory lane just to show how some of the other things might have led to that passionate time that I unknowingly had set aside for oil lamps. I hope that some of you can identify with my experiences, the places and things I discovered along the way.
When I was five my parents rented an apartment in Newburyport, right across the street from the Brown school. What could be more convenient than stepping out of my front door, crossing the street, and going to school? Two years later we bought a house in the south end of town, called Joppa.
Now I had to walk farther to school than any other student. What, I asked, no busses? I was a typical boy and everything was an adventure – except school. I had my Dalmatian dog named Whip, my bicycle, and plenty of woods for roaming. Needless to say, I couldn’t focus on school, and there was some fear that I wouldn’t graduate from the eighth grade.
But along came The Essex County Agricultural School with a program that would allow me to go forward. I jumped at the chance to enroll in a program that offered six months of school and six months of “on the job training.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I guess there was a shortage of farmers and the school was out recruiting many of the under-achievers to fill the void. This was 1948 and it must have been that a lot of the young potential farmers were taken for war purposes. Much to my surprise, (and my mother’s) I loved farming! I got my first “hands on” training in Chelsea, Vermont, on Glen Button’s dairy farm. I arrived there just in time for sugaring. No pipe lines here, only hundreds of taps and buckets scattered all over the countryside. I can still remember wading through three feet of snow with two heavy sap buckets to the collection wagon.Along with that experience I learned how to milk cows, assist in fertilization, help deliver calves, plant a vegetable garden, raise chickens and pigs, and help with the haying. Boy, do I ever remember that! A chance to work 16 hours a day or even into the night under lights to beat the weather. Long days were common and a six-and-a-half day workweek was expected. The compensation wasn’t the greatest. I received $10.00 per week plus room and board. I am not sure how I managed to save $140.00 that summer. But the biggest reward was an experience that thrilled this thirteen-year-old boy: I learned to drive a pick up truck. I really didn’t mind the hard work and long hours, so the pick up truck was like frosting on the cake.
The second year in school, I changed my major to poultry and minor to auto shop. That summer and the next, I worked for Christy’s Poultry Farms based in Kingston, New Hampshire. They had 11 surrounding farms with 225,000 laying hens – all for fertile egg production, not one to fry. They had developed a special strain of chicken called the Sex Link Cross and their eggs were shipped all over the world. My first year I had an entry-level job of caring for 15,000 young roosters in an outside range environment. The second year I graduated to tending 5,000 laying hens under a large shelter. This was quite a lot of responsibility for a 15 year old boy.
Here again, I loved my job. But the biggest thrill of my entire duration there was learning how to play bridge. My grand teacher was a gruff old man affectionately called “Mudd.” His last name was Lake. He and his partner, for a few years, were the New Hampshire State champions. He was hunched over, always needed a shave and a hair cut, and walked with a shuffle. He almost had the appearance of someone uneducated, but could this man play bridge!
Mudd’s technique was to pick his cards up and never rearrange them in his hand. This would throw off the more experienced opponents because they could never tell how many cards were likely left in a suit by the positioning in Mudd’s hand. When I wasn’t his partner, I would sit behind him and watch as he methodically destroyed his opponents with experience and accuracy of delivery. I will always remember what a treat it was to be Mudd Lake’s partner at the lunchroom table at Christy’s.
In July of that summer I bought my first car, a 1935 Ford. Another major event was my driver’s license, which I got a short time later on the day after my 16th birthday. I wasn’t about to waste any time: I had a life to get on with and a whole world of adventure awaited me. Little did I know that what also awaited me was a passion for oil lamps.
What the heck does all this life history have to do with oil lighting? Nothing. It has to do with the absence of oil lighting. The year is 1951 and I can’t recall seeing even one oil lamp! Where were they all? Were folks just so tired of them that they got stored in the cellar or thrown in the dump?
Anyway, a conflict with my foreman at Christy’s led to my early departure. I thought I was right, and held my position to the end and eventually quit. But when I returned to school, they also thought I was wrong. My punishment was to change my minor subject from auto shop to vegetable gardening. Enough, I thought, I quit! I went right from the school to the unemployment office and started working at M&V Electroplating Corp. that very next day. This job was my first introduction to metal finishing. It seems there was enough adventure in this field to last a lifetime because I’m still in it today.
My stay with M&V was cut short because of the Korean Conflict. Uncle Sam was asking for volunteer enlistments. I decided to join the Navy even though I was only 17 years old. The next year, when I was still under 18, I was called in on a “Kitty Cruise.” The “Kitty Cruise” meant that my mother had to give permission for me to go, and the Navy in turn had to discharge me before I turned 21. Not too long afterwards I was headed on an “Around The World Cruise” with a tour of duty layover at Inchon Bay, Korea. One day before we were to pull into the bay, the Captain received word that the fighting had stopped and the war was over. We finished the world cruise anyway.
I loved the Navy. My third year in the service, I was home on leave late in the summer of 1955. It was hot, so I decided to cool off with a dip in the Atlantic Ocean at Plum Island, just a short way from Newburyport. While there, I had a chance encounter with a beautiful redheaded girl from Rowley, Massachusetts. Her name was Barbara Janvrin. We talked most of the afternoon and I asked her out on a date that evening, much to her mother’s dismay. “Out on a date with a stranger! A Sailor!” she said. The very next summer we were married. We now have four children (Melody, Rodney, Mark and Eric) and are approaching our 46th wedding anniversary.
One week after we got married, I went back to work for M&V Electroplating. I stayed there for eight years, working my way up the ranks until I became shop supervisor. I left M&V on good terms to start a private business with a friend of mine. Like I said, that partnership ended, and I went on to spend four years at Haverhill Plating. It was at this time, around 1963, that I began to develop my antique lamp business.
I would buy metal table lamps almost everyday, strip the nickel, polish the brass, lacquer and brass plate if necessary, electrify them, then sell them to dealers a dozen at a time for $8.50 each. I managed to make a profit because I was buying Rayo-type lamps for $.50 to $1.50 each. It was not uncommon to stop at Lynch & Grahams Antiques on my way home from work on Friday and fill my trunk and back seat with 20 to 40 lamps, and I would process up to eight lamps a day in my spare time.
In those days no one cared about original lamps and certainly they would not burn oil in them. So, I would punch switch holes in them, remove draft tubes, or anything else I needed to do to prepare them for retail sale. For some reason I was convinced that electrifying all of these lamps wasn’t actually destroying them. I thought I was putting new life into something that might otherwise have been discarded. It’s a much different situation today.
As the dealers began to know me, they would trust me with contract restoration and wiring. Now I was handling a better class of lamp. At this point my passion was firing up. I needed to own some of these better lamps, to study them, to make broken oil-adjusting mechanisms work again, to convert butchered lamps (damage I might have even done) back to oil with a “no harm” electrification.
Keep in mind, that just four years before this point, I saw my first Rayo® lamp. Now I’m handling so many of them that I can’t help but wonder where all these lamps are coming from. The demand for these Victorian lamps was just starting to unfold. In 1920, 40-some years before this point, a majority of the population was putting these lamps away in record numbers. Once they purchased an electric lamp, the oil lamp was history. No more cleaning chimneys, no more filling lamps with kerosene each day, no more mess from spilled fuel or picking or trimming the wick. Housewives were happy to see that the electric lamp didn’t leave a yellow stain on the ceiling. Comfort came from knowing that if you accidentally tipped the lamp over, it would likely not cause a fire.
Like myself, the new generation had never experienced laboring over an oil lamp. Newly wired lamps were electric, polished brass and inexpensive. I was now making myself available to the places where these lamps were sold, so, when people found out that I bought this type of lamp, they found me. Even while converting these lamps to electric, I had a deep feeling of responsibility to retain the best in oil condition, and I started a collection.
My first collection consisted of nearly 100 perfect nickel-plated examples. I found a dealer to buy them. I don’t know what he did with them, but as long as they left my hands in their original state, I was happy. I have put together many of these collections over the years and I’m still collecting originals today. At first, I worked strictly in the Victorian lamp period, which is from 1880 to 1920. Over the next 34 years I tried several different lighting time periods, but none was more interesting to me than the Victorian era.
Early on, in my Haverhill Plating years, I became a member of The Rushlight Club and started researching early lighting. I read every piece of text that I could put my hands on and found some interesting facts along the way. In March of 1968, I took my passion to the next level and started Circle Finishing, Inc., another metal finishing shop, specializing in copper, nickel, chrome, silver, brass and anodizing. Thirty-four years have passed, and I’m still operating Circle. We were originally located on the Route One rotary. My company has always been dedicated to restoration. We have refinished hundreds of items such as brass and copper antiques, plumbing goods and hardware, marine compass housings, cook stoves (nickel trim), and antique auto and boat trim and, of course, lamps.
My lamp concentration had its ups and downs, depending on how much of my attention needed to be focused on the business end. I did manage, however, to build three more large lamp collections with everything from bowl-type lamps, whale-oil lamps, and every conceivable type of Victorian table lamp and fixture that you could imagine. Eventually these collections were all turned loose to dealers. During these collecting years I shied away from the more expensive type lamps such as Solar, Astral, Sinumbra, Harvard, and so on. I had little or no interest in this type, except for their place in the chain of lighting evolution.
From the 16th to the 18th Centuries lighting was slowly becoming greater in demand. Some of the methods for producing more light were simple but dangerous, such as huge torches lining the hall of a public meeting place or bunching hundreds of candles together for a grand home gathering. Some were more creative, such as a motorized spring driven fan in the bottom of a lamp. One of the greatest advancements during this period was a simple discovery by an incidental trial. The chimney was a confined draft, which produced a much brighter, non-flickering light.
In addition, new fuels were discovered and tested. Gas lighting, which was introduced in the 18th Century, generated a beautiful bright light, but proved to be expensive to implement. Whale oil became popular in the 17th Century and was used by the majority of people until around 1870. It gave a bright white light, but the odor was the one big drawback.
The Victorian era was, in my eyes, the most exciting of all periods of oil lighting. After the discovery of crude oil in the mid-1800s, the subsequent distillation of a new lamp fuel (known today as kerosene), and the advent of the round wick burner setting over a cylinder called the central draft tube, a new greater light was born. Right on its heels was a fresh demand for this new improved light. In response to this demand, companies such as Manhattan Brass, Bradley & Hubbard, Edward Miller, Plume & Atwood, and many others started mass producing lamps that had all of the modern features. Competition was fierce. For a period of about 30 years, lamps with this fuel and burner arrangement almost dominated the household.
Some of the more expensive lamps from this era used a burner called the duplex, which consisted of two wicks with separate adjusting knobs for each. Some loyalists claimed that this burner outperformed the central draft burner, but the central draft outsold the duplex. Over this 30-year span, only modest changes were made in the burner technology. Consumers were generally satisfied with the amount of lamplight. It all came down to style.
Design engineers must have been on staff by the hundreds. Thousands of different designs were produced and this also spun off to the glassmakers. Shades of unique styles and vibrant colors were the norm, and terms like cut back overlay, cased & embossed, were used frequently. A rainbow of colors was available in stock or by special order. Even Tiffany & Co. jumped on the bandwagon by purchasing lamps from Manhattan Brass and highly decorating them with elaborate embellishments. They made quite an impact on the high-end market. The huge variety and availability of lamps within this period are the main reasons I’m so intrigued and drawn to it. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t handle a lamp that I’ve never seen before.
Somewhere around 1900 two companies, The Angle Lamp Co. and The Aladdin Mantle Lamp Co., introduced lamps with significant changes in burner designs. I consider these two improvements grand enough to place them in a category of the best of light-producing burners. Aladdin, which is still in business today, is certainly number one.
There are many books illustrating with excellent text and descriptions the wonderful artistry and colors of lamps and glassware from this 50-year Victorian period. The two that I reference most frequently are: [amazon_link id=”1574320890″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Oil Lamps 3[/amazon_link] by Catherine Thuro and [amazon_link id=”0915410869″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Student Lamps of The Victorian Era[/amazon_link] by Richard Miller. If you’re not familiar with these books, I urge you to take a look.
Two years ago I was looking ahead to my retirement, as it was a lot closer than it was ten years ago. I knew that I wanted to continue with my passion with a flexible schedule, but was unsure how to proceed. After contacting some old friends in the business, I was advised that if I wanted to get up to speed in the real world I needed to purchase a computer, put together a neat Web-Site and have an e-mail address. With the help of Al MacLeod from MacLeod Bros. Websites, I did just that. Then I formed a business called “Honor Student Lamps.” I chose this name first because I’m very fond of student lamps and secondly, I would want all of my lamps to make the “Honor Roll” and go to the head of the class. Since starting this business, I use my collection as my inventory. I restore lamps to the best of my ability and send them off to new homes upon purchase.
Recently, I was asked by one of my customers to electrify and restore a four-burner Angle Lamp chandelier. These lamps are rare and I had never had the opportunity to see one in person. How lucky I felt to be able to hold and inspect this great lamp!
Many have asked me, “What lamps do I use at home?” The answer is two Rayo standard table lamps in the bedroom on night stands, one large Miller student lamp on my wife’s dresser and one Aladdin lamp, in oil, for power failures – that’s it. I’ve found that I don’t need a collection to have a passion!
It has been my pleasure to share my story with you. And although I don’t expect everyone to share in my passion for lamps, I hope I have helped many of you “to see the light.” I’m not sure where my passion will lead me next, but one thing is certain, it will fan the flame in my heart!
More of Rod’s Lamps, Shades and Lamp parts or accessories can be seen on the web at www.honorstudentlamps.com.
Contact Mr. L’Italien at email@example.com or call during normal business hours (Eastern) 800-282-4499