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Lighting in the Victorian home

Oil Lamps

Oil had been burnt in lamps at least since the Palaeolithic age, and the cheapest light fittings used in Victorian homes had changed little since then, with a simple wick protruding from a small container of whale oil or vegetable oil. However, much brighter and more sophisticated lamps had emerged late in the 18th century, the most important being the Argand oil lamp. This lamp had a broad flat wick held between two metal cylinders to form a circular wick, with air drawn through it and around it. This in itself was a revolutionary idea, but its inventor, Aimé Argand also discovered that by placing a tube or 'chimney' over the flame, the hot gases from the flame rose rapidly creating a draught and drawing air in from below. Fanned by a draught from both inside and outside the circular wick, the poor spluttering flame of early lamps was transformed into a bright, efficient light source.

The one disadvantage for the Argand oil lamp and its many imitators in the early Victorian period was that the best oil then available, colza, was so thick and viscous that it had to be fed to the wick either by gravity from a reservoir above, or pumped up from below. Most colza oil lamps have a reservoir often shaped like a classical urn to one side which in some fittings obstructed the light. The Sinumbra lamp got around the problem by having a circular reservoir around the base of the glass light shade.

Paraffin oil lamp suspended from the centre of the morning room, Linley Sambourne House, London. (Linley Sambourne House, London/Bridgeman Art Library)

One of the most significant improvements of the Victorian period was the introduction of paraffin. Patented in 1850, the price of the new fuel fell dramatically following the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, USA. As paraffin was much lighter than colza the reservoir could be placed below the flame, enabling many new designs of light fittings. One of the most successful paraffin lamps was the Duplex burner introduced in 1865 which had two wicks side by side and, like the Argand lamp, a clear glass chimney with air drawn from below. Most lamps also had a larger shade around the chimney often of opaque glass to diffuse the light. The shades or diffusers provided an opportunity for decoration, and a variety of shapes, colours and patterns were used.

A type of paraffin lamp with a Duplex burner which was common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The simple pulley arrangement enabled the lamp to be pulled down low over a table to provide a bright pool of light, or raised to illuminate the whole room.

The amount of light which can be produced by a wick is limited by the surface area of the wick and the amount of fuel and air able to reach it. As fuel burns at the tip of the wick only. The gas mantle, on the other hand, provides a much larger three-dimensional surface, and is far more effective as a result. Invented by Carl Aur von Wesbach in 1885, the incandescent mantle was the last major breakthrough in oil and gas lighting of the period, before both succumbed to electric lighting. The mantle consists of a skirt of silk or cotton impregnated with a non-inflammable mixture (thorium and cerium), suspended over a fierce flame. When first ignited, the cotton burns away leaving fine, brittle filaments of non-combustible material in its place which glow white hot or 'incandescent'. The mantle works best with either gas or a fine mist of paraffin produced by a pressurised reservoir which is still widely used in camping lamps today, producing a bright, warm light to rival an electric bulb.

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