Types of Antique Lamps: Identifying the Different Designs

Updated April 28, 2021
Old Fashioned Oil Lamp

An easy way to switch up your workspace is to add an antique or vintage lamp to your desk décor, but you're probably wondering how to identify vintage lamps from the many other types of lighting available. Incredibly, many of these antique and vintage lamps, both electric and oil, can actually be used today, and they come in such a wide variety of styles that there's sure to be the perfect lamp to suit your taste.

Earliest Antique Lamps

Prior to the spread of gas lighting and the development of electricity, all lamps operated on the same principle using two specific elements: a reservoir to hold oil and a wick to control how quickly it burned. Presumably, the first lamp was invented thousands of years ago when someone noticed that oil-saturated fabric could burn steadily over a long period of time if regulated properly. The earliest examples of lamps were made of clay and shaped by hand; these were prevalent throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages up until the 6th century BCE. Molds were introduced into lamp making around the rise of the Grecian Empire, and metal was introduced around the 1st century CE. These early lamps were often shaped like humans or other figures and as artistry became more complex, so too did these lamps' decorations.

Antique Lamps: Medieval Period - 18th Century

Over the centuries, craftsmen refined their lamp designs and the introduction of professional glassblowing helped strengthen the lamps by shielding their flames and securing the lamps' embers from causing destruction. However, lamps were still more common in areas where oil was plentiful during this period. The most iconic lamps from this period include the Cruise, Betty, and Central Draft lamps.

Cruise Lamp

The Cruise lamp is projected to have been invented in the 17th Century as a new tool for withholding lit kindling. These lamps used wicks which drew up oil faster than it could burn, causing an excess of drippings that was caught by a second reservoir within the lamp.

Betty Lamp

During the 18th Century, the Betty lamp was invented as a way to reuse the oil drippings that came from spent wicks. Inspired by the German word for "better," the Betty made lamps more economical and also reduced spills and increased user control over the lamp by including a cover.

Central Draft Lamp

In 1780, Aime Argand invented the Central Draft lamp, which used a cylindrical wick and chimney to maximize air flow around the wick, thus making the light brighter. One of the revolutionary features of the Central Draft lamp's design was that is included a mechanism that allowed users to easily raise and lower the wick in order to increase or decrease its burn. Coleman, Rayo, and Aladdin were the best known makers of these lamps.

Central Draft Lamp

Antique Lamps: 19th Century

Lamp technology in the 19th Century was completely upended with the invention of both gas lighting and kerosene. However, electric lighting's popularity soared at the end of the century, and is still used today. Because of these advancements in both artistry and technology, lamps during the 19th century were particularly beautiful, featuring decorated lamp shades, painted glass bulbs, and other unique features. Three iconic antique oil lamps from this period are student lamps, Banquet lamps, and Tiffany lamps.

Types of antique lamps

Student Lamps

These popular kerosene lamps featured swinging arms that were designed to transmit the most light possible for reading and came in both a single or double burner models. In order to do so, the kerosene reservoir was placed out of the way of the actual lamp.

Banquet Lamps

Banquet lamps are particularly beautiful 19th Century lamps which are usually painted and are easily identified by their unique upper and lower glass or metal globes. Occasionally these are referred to as Gone With the Wind lamps because of how prominently they're featured in the mis-en-scene of the film. A few of the significant manufacturers of these lamps include:

  • Bradly & Hubbard
  • Miller
  • Pairpoint
  • Fostoria
  • Baccarat
Banquet Lamp

Tiffany Lamps

Louis Comfort Tiffany's renowned techniques of molding colorful, patchwork lamps dominated the lighting market during the late-19th Century. Since Tiffany Studios closed in 1933, ceasing its production of these infamous lamps, authentic antique Tiffany lamps can be worth an exorbitant amount of money today. Some of the best-known designs featured on these Tiffany lamps include:

  • Dragonfly
  • Lily
  • Nautilus
  • Wisteria
Antique Tiffany Lamp

Where to Buy Antique Lamps

When you're looking to add an antique lamp to your collection, the first place to start is any local antique stores, particularly those known for carrying furniture and other fixtures. Buying straight from an individual prevents you from adding shipping costs onto your orders. However, for more unusual or regional-specific lamps, looking at online auction websites like Ruby Lane, 1stDibbs, and many others is a great option. Similarly, if you're trying to get an antique lamp repaired or restored, you can purchase replacement parts from Antique Lamp Supply. As with any other antiques, make sure that you carefully investigate the item you're interested in for any broken pieces or cracked parts, and assess whether or not its functional, as all of these things can affect a lamp's value.

antique lamp

Bring Vintage Ambiance Into Your Home

The unique lighting that antique lamps cast onto the interior walls of whatever space they're located in help imbue a room with an incredible vintage ambiance. Before adding oil to an antique lamp or plugging an electric one in, make sure to check that all the pieces are cleaned and intact; it can mean the difference between a small, but beautiful, light and a raging inferno in your home.

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Types of Antique Lamps: Identifying the Different Designs