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Kerosene Lanterns


The demand for oil and kerosene lanterns in the 19th century spawn untold numbers of lantern manufacturers. Practically every town had a tinsmith making lanterns for the local community. To get some idea of how wide spread this was just look how many Smiths there are in the phone book. During the Civil War the rail transportation system was improved to the point that it was practical ship lanterns state-to-state.

It was also during the war that the use of metal stamping machines to draw and press metal flourished in the U.S. Hundreds of small stamping companies appeared and just as the auto industry had its giant, Henry Ford, the lantern industry had Robert E. Dietz. The story of Robert Dietz’s company is practically the history of kerosene lanterns in America.

Robert Edwin Dietz was born on January 5, 1818 in New York City. In 1840 Dietz used his savings to purchase a small oil lamp business in Brooklyn. The R. E. Dietz Company sold sperm oil, whale oil, camphene (distilled turpentine), glass lamps, candlesticks, and a few dead flame lanterns. Coal oil (kerosene) was first distilled in quantity from coal in 1856 and Robert Dietz had a ready market for a cheap, bright burning fuel. Dietz was awarded a patent for a burner specially designed to burn the new oil. After Edwin Drake produced the first commercially successful oil well in 1859, the stage was set for an even cheaper source of kerosene.

During the 1860s, Civil War contracts, Robert’s hard work, growth of railroads, and westward expansion made the lamp business a huge success. After the war ended, the cost of kerosene came down to a level where Dietz could sell lamps and lanterns to people who were still using candles. In 1868, Robert Dietz began to produce and sell a new tubular lantern patented by John Irwin. The lantern business continued to be good and, in 1887, a new factory was built on the corner of Greenwich and Laught streets in New York. In 1894, Dietz retired and left his sons Frederick and John in charge. Robert E. Dietz passed away on September 19, 1897, at the age of 79.

Fire destroyed the ten-year-old factory in June 1897 and C. T. Ham offered to sell out to Dietz for $190,000. Instead, in February 1898, the board of directors secured controlling interest in the Steam Gauge & Lantern Company of Syracuse, New York. The New York City factory was back in operation later that same year. In 1915 the equipment from the closed C. T. Ham Manufacturing Company was purchased by the R. E. Dietz Company. Many lantern models were discontinued because of the Great Depression, and all manufacturing moved to Syracuse in 1931. However, the Dietz main office remained in NYC until 1952. The company expanded into electric lights for commercial trucks but continued to make a few kerosene lanterns until it folded in 1992.

The Buffalo Steam Gauge and Lantern Company moved to Rochester, New York and were reincorporated in 1881. At that time, a new factory was built on the Genesee River, the name was changed to Steam Gauge & Lantern Company, and C. T. Ham joined the corporation. S. G. & L. Co. owned the rights to produce and sell Irwin’s tubular lanterns in the western states. Charles T. Ham left S. G. & L. Co. to start his own lantern works in 1886. Things were humming along as well as could be expected until the night of November 9, 1888. A fire started in the first floor shipping department of the seven-story building. The fire quickly spread up the open stairwells trapping the night crew on the upper floors. Many threw themselves out the windows, smashing to the feet of horrified and helpless onlookers. Thirty-five perished immediately or days later from injuries received. After the fire, the company moved to Syracuse, New York and resumed business. The R. E. Dietz Company purchased a controlling interest in S. G. & L. Company after Dietz New York City factory burned in 1896. The name of S. G. & L. Co. continued to be used on lanterns until it was phased out about 1900.

Charles Trafton Ham was born in North Berwick, Maine on September 25, 1824 and grew up to become a locomotive engineer on the Boston & Lowell Railroad. In 1871, at the age of 46, he became partners with J. H. Kelley. Their partnership eventually became the Buffalo Steam Gauge Company. When the steam gauge business merged with a lantern company in 1875, the name became Buffalo Steam Gauge and Lantern. The firm produced railroad headlights and markers in addition to steam gauges. The company and factory moved to Rochester in 1876. At the age of 61, C. T. Ham left S. G. & L. to start C. T. Ham Manufacturing Co. in Rochester. His company built tubular, street, square, headlights, railroad, commercial and vessel lamps and lanterns. The company closed in 1914 and was then purchased by the R. E. Dietz Company.

John McGregor Adams was born in Londonderry, New Hampshire on March 11, 1834. At the age of 19, Adams went to New York and got a job on the sales staff of Clark and Jesup. Adams was so successful he was sent to Chicago to run the sales office there. Adams was soon the head of his own company. William Westlake was born in Cornwall, England on July 23, 1831. Westlake was a tinsmith for the LaCrosse & Milwaukee Railroad. In 1862 he invented the removable globe lantern, which he then manufactured in Chicago. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed Westlake’s factory but it was rebuilt. On October 21, 1874, Mr. Adams and Mr. Westlake’s companies joined forces to create the Adams and Westlake Company (Adlake). The resulting organization became the most successful railroad lantern company ever. Adlake merged with the Forsyth Brothers Company in 1899 to form the Curtain Supply Company, which moved to Elkhart, Indiana in 1923. Adlake manufacturing moved from Chicago to Elkhart in 1927 where they continue to make railroad equipment today. In 1966, Adlake acquired another well-known railroad lantern maker, the Lovell-Dressel Company.

Alexander Hamilton Handlan was born in Wheeling, West Virginia on April 25, 1844. During the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), Handlan learned bookkeeping in the Union Quartermaster Corp. In 1868, young Alexander secured a position with Myron M. Buck’s company in St. Louis, Missouri. Alexander became a partner in M. M. Buck and Company in 1874, and bought Buck out in 1895. The company name was changed to Handlan-Buck Manufacturing Company in 1901. Alexander Handlan Jr. continued the firm, which lasted until about 1960.

William Chamberlain Embury was born in Napanee, Ontario, Canada on December 17, 1873. As a young man Embury worked for a Canadian tin and lantern company named Kemp Manufacturing in Toronto. Embury moved to Rochester, New York and started the Defiance Lantern & Stamping Co. in 1900. Embury’s partners in Toronto financed Defiance Lantern and Stamping and when they tried to force Embury to hire unskilled relatives in 1908, he left to start Embury Manufacturing. During the teens and 20s Defiance made generic hot blast and cold blast barn lanterns plus a conventional No. 39 railroad lantern. Defiance was too small to survive the Stock Market crash of October 1929 and Embury was able to purchase their dies and equipment in 1930.

At the age of 35, William C. Embury left the Defiance Lantern and Stamping Company to form the Embury Manufacturing Company on November 27, 1908, in Rochester, New York. Embury moved his factory to Warsaw, New York in 1911. His lantern company was so successful that Embury was able to purchase Defiance Lantern & Stamping after the stock market crash of 1929. Embury lanterns were often sold to wholesalers and municipalities without the Embury name, which makes identification more difficult. The Embury Family supplied this list of Private Names used on Embury lanterns after 1939. William C. Embury retired in 1936 and the business continued under the direction of Phil, Fred, and William. Use of the kerosene lantern was in decline after World War Two. Embury Manufacturing closed on the last day of 1952. The Dietz Company purchased the equipment and moved it to the Dietz factory in Syracuse where some of the more popular lanterns continued to be made.

Frederick Perkins started Perkins Marine Lamp Corporation in 1916 to produce brass and hot galvanized iron lanterns and other ship fixtures. Perkins, Dietz and others made the World Standard Deck lantern around this time. The Great Depression caused Perkins to reorganize and change the corporation name to Perkins Marine Lamp and Hardware. The company prospered through the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. The corporation moved to Miami, Florida in 1960 and the name changed to Perko, Inc. The complete set of nautical clearance lights include this 180 degree light for the mast, two 90 degree lights for the port and starboard side, and a 360 degree anchor or stern light. Solid brass or heavy galvanized steel is necessary for use around boats and salt water.

In 1878, Archibald Woods Paull Sr. started a metal stamping business called the Nail City Lantern Company in Wheeling, West Virginia. Their principle product was lanterns but they also produced numerous metal and glass items. Archibald Woods Paull II reorganized the company in 1897 and renamed it Wheeling Stamping Company. Wheeling lanterns are marked “PAULL’S” and use plastic for the fount caps. Wheeling continued to make lanterns until 1946 when the lantern division was sold to the R. E. Dietz Company.

Nicholas Kopp was the Chief Scientist for the Pittsburgh Lamp, Brass and Glass Company when they moved to Swissvale, Pennsylvania around 1900. Mr. Kopp was instrumental in the invention of the red selenium glass we are familiar with today. In 1926, Nicholas Kopp took over the failed company’s equipment and building in Swissvale. The Kopp Glass Company globes were sold direct to lantern manufacturers with the manufacturer’s name cast in the glass. However the Kopp logo, a circle with a K inside, appears on some Kopp made globes.

Due to the availability of wood for fuel, many glass factories were located around Pittsburgh. In 1864, Amory Houghton, Sr. purchased the Brooklyn Flint Glass Manufactury. The company name was changed to Corning Flint Glass Works when, in 1868, Amory moved to be closer to the rail line in Corning, New York. The railroad now provided the coal for the glass furnace and Corning provided the railroads with signal lens and lantern globes. Good as they were, lantern globes had a tendency to crack if unevenly heated by the flame or cooled by rain or snow. In 1908, Corning sponsored one of the first research laboratories in American industry and they went to work on the problem. In 1909, NoNex, the first low expansion glass, was produced for barn and railroad lanterns. NoNex led directly to the development of Pyrex brand cookware in 1915. Corning heat resistant globes can be identified by their Trademark NX (for NoNex) inside a larger letter C.