Light a hurricane lamp in your home and history illuminates your abode. Since prehistoric times, families have burned oil in vessels to hold off the darkness and lengthen the hours in which people can work and play. From the palaces of Ancient Rome to the humble little house on the prairie of pioneer days, oil lamps have an honored place in the human story and many modern Americans declare they wouldn’t live without them, despite our general dependence on electricity. Hurricane Lamps represent a major historical improvement in lamp design and this article aims to answer all your FAQs about them.
In 1780, Francois-Pierre Aime Argand, the son of a Swiss watchmaker, was struck with a bright new idea. He invented an oil lamp with a glass chimney and a control nob. Aime Argand was a scientist with a particular interest in Chemistry, and he realized that a cylindrical wick which allowed air to flow both through and around itself would produce a brighter light. The glass lamp chimney protected the flame from gusts and the control nob enabled the lamp user to adjust the height of the wick, offering further control over the strength of light produced. Whale oil or olive oil was typically used as the fuel for the new lamp. Aime Argand was a man of his times – a scholar of the period we call The Enlightenment – in which science was being explored for the benefit of mankind and in inventing the prototype Hurricane Lamp, Aime Argand would illuminate the world for centuries to come.
History And Modern Usage
Early oil lamps had three main drawbacks:
- Their light was seldom very bright
- Oil lamps smoked a great deal
- The slightest breeze could put them out
Use On Ships
Piracy, sea battles, royal navies and transatlantic voyages were part and parcel of life in the 18th and 19th centuries and mariners quickly adapted the wind-resistant hurricane lamp for use on their vessels. Hanging hurricane lamps and wall hurricane lamps, often lantern-like in shape, became necessary equipment for ships and in addition to lighting cabins and decks, they were used to send signals from ship to ship.
Civil War and Movie Sets
Many Americans most readily associate Hurricane Lamps with the Civil War of the mid 19th century, largely owing to fact that these lamps were extensively used in the lavish movie sets of Gone With The Wind. True to the burgeoning Victorian delight in ostentatious ornamentation, Hurricane Lamps of the 1800s could be grandly large, wrought in colored and etched glass, embellished with gleaming brass scrollwork and other fancy elements. Floral motifs, amethyst and red glass chimneys, milk glass, etched star glass, crystal pendants, beads and more were highly prized and today, antique Hurricane Lamps command a hefty price at auction. If you’d like to collect Antique Hurricane Lamps, the important things to look for are unmarred chimneys and wick controls that are still functional and haven’t rusted. Make sure the lamp base still holds oil properly, as well.
Far simpler than the elegant, frilly lamps of stately Victorian era homes were the simple clear glass vessels that lit the way for pioneers across the West. Just as the above screenshot from the popular 1970’s TV series Little House On The Prairie depicts, plain glass hurricane lamps turned lonesome cabins in isolated landscapes into cozy harbors for families to gather in the evenings to eat, to chat, to pray and sing, to plan the next day’s work long after sundown had drawn a curtain of darkness over wood and prairie. Hurricane Lamps remain very much in demand for all types of historical re-enactments and if you look at some of your favorite shows or movies set in the 19th or early 20th centuries, you are sure to notice that these basic, light-giving oil lamps are everywhere! Civil War societies and other historic clubs and committees are keeping Hurricane Lamps alight across the USA.
In many areas of the country, the power of electricity was slow to come. Long into the 20th century, folk in rural areas continued to live by candlelight and the light of kerosene oil lamps. Even now, some areas of the USA are not connected up to the grid and, of real note, some families with pioneer-like bravery are jumping off the grid and fueling and lighting their homes in different and creative ways. In these situations, owning several Hurricane Lamps for occasional or emergency lighting is a smart survival tactic.
Of important regional significance, residents of states like Florida cope with hurricanes and other fierce storms as a fact of daily life. A vintage cookbook I treasure describes a community so used to these upheavals in the weather that they developed meal plans for hurricane season and the local housewives were heard saying, “What will you be having for the hurricane for dinner?” If you live in a part of the country where weather or other factors cause frequent power outages, purchasing a trusty hurricane lamp really makes sense.
Hurricane Lamps are also ideal for outdoor living. Use them at your next barbecue or on a camping trip for light without the hassle of cords or batteries.
Finally, there is a glow of romance surrounding these special lamps with their long history. Electric lights cannot reproduce the soft, warm radiance of the Hurricane Lamp and lighting one works some type of magic in that it instantly creates a feeling of intimacy, quiet and comfort. Whether you own a period home and are looking for an antique or reproduction Hurricane Lamp or you simply prefer the gentler illumination oil lamps provide, the Hurricane Lamp is a piece of our past worth saving.
About Emerson Creek’s Hurricane Lamps
If Francois-Pierre Aime Argand, inventor of the Hurricane Lamp, had crossed the Atlantic to visit Colonial America, he would have inspired the manufacture of lamps very much like the ones our potters handcraft here at Emerson Creek Pottery in Virginia. Early colonists had to throw all of their inventiveness and industriousness into founding factories that could produce the metals, glass, ceramics, cloth and other goods they needed for life in their new land. To avoid excessive overseas taxation, Dutch settlers produced the first whiteware pottery in 1684 and out of necessity, early American goods focused on being sturdy and functional. Over time, styles of decoration and refinements in forms produced the high quality American ceramics which are now priceless collectors’ pieces and from which our potters have drawn inspiration since we founded our own American company in 1977. Our Hurricane Lamps offer both authentic antique appeal and are handmade and hand painted, delivering the quality you can count on.
Hurricane Lamp Parts
There are three basic oil lamp parts that makeup your standard Hurricane Lamp: the wick, the chimney or globe, and the base. In addition to this, most Hurricane Lamps feature a nob which allows you to raise and lower the wick to control the brightness given off.
Our Hurricane Lamps feature a lead-free pottery base and a clear glass chimney. If you need to buy replacement wicks or chimneys, we can sell them, or you can find them at your local hardware store where you can also buy lamp oil.
Hurricane lamp oil is an oil of the kerosene family. It is prized because it produces little smoke or soot. You can purchase it at your local hardware store or camping supply shop.
How To Use a Hurricane Lamp
It’s no surprise, considering the prevalence of electricity, that many modern people have never used or lit a Hurricane Lamp. Here’s how Hurricane Lamps work:
There are two pieces secured to the top lip of the Hurricane Lamp. One is permanently attached to the Hurricane base and the other screws off/on to the piece secured to the base. Unscrew the detachable piece from the base and fill with lamp oil about 3/4 full.
The wick should be pre-fed through the insert on the detachable piece from the bottom coming up through the top while using the turning wheel to bring the wick up through. The wick should clear all metal parts about a 1/4 of an inch to start. The lamp wick can later be adjusted up by the turning wheel to achieve desired flame size.
While feeding the wick into the base, tightly re-secure the detached metal piece to the metal piece permanently attached to the base. If any oil was spilled, thoroughly clean the area before lighting.
Light wick. Slide glass globe inside four metal arms on the metal base. Adjust flame size with spinning wheel.
Special Notes On Home Usage
- Keep Hurricane Lamps in a safe place away from children and pets. Young children, unused to flame-based lighting, should never be left unsupervised in a room where oil lamps are present. Just as you would take extra care in a room where candles are lit, practice good safety when using Hurricane Lamps.
- Pottery can scratch you furniture. Protect your furniture by placing a non-porous surface underneath.
- Make sure your lamp is placed in a secure location where passing traffic cannot accidentally knock it over.
- Citronella lamp oil can be used in outdoor settings in Hurricane Lamps to deter insects.
Giving The Bright Gift
Birthdays and holidays can be challenging when you’re shopping for the man who has everything or the lady who won’t tell you what she wants. The gift of a Hurricane Lamp may just solve your dilemma. Though once a given in nearly every American home, oil lamps can be a novel idea these days, even for tough-to-shop-for loved ones. Who would appreciate a Hurricane Lamp?
- History buffs – just imagine how nifty they’ll feel lighting up their home or office in this interesting, historical manner!
- Elders – they may well remember hurricane lamps from childhood and would be delighted to see one again.
- Scholars – what could be better for burning the midnight oil at exam time?
- Homesteaders – this is an ideal gift for the young generation that is going off the grid and getting back to the land.
- Rural and regional residents – if you care about someone who lives out in the country or in a fierce weather area, a Hurricane lamp could really lighten their worries during outages and emegencies.
Tell us your stories
Do you own an antique lamp or have found memories of the one your Grandmother owned? Do you have any tips or tricks for using, cleaning your lamps? We’d love to hear your stories and welcome your comments here.