200 Years of Oil Lamps with Jim Van Es

There isn’t anyone better to provide light and warmth than Jim Van Es.

As proprietor of the Wooden Shoe antique shop in Charles Town, W.V., and a WorthPoint Worthologist, Van Es understands historic and antique lamps. He has studied them, collected them, repaired them, and kept warm by them for over 40 years.

“I started out with an Aladdin lamp—the Lincoln Drape—made approximately 1940,” said Van Es. “It takes a mantel on the top and burns with kerosene. It gives out approximately 50 to 60 candlepower. It’s simple to light, you get an impressive amount of light, and it’s very efficient. It gives out 3,000 btu’s of heat. They’ve been making them since about 1908.”

That first lamp was given to Van Es and his wife Sheri as a wedding present. That began his interest in kerosene lamps and the history of lighting in general. Today, he is a dedicated Aladdin Lamp distributor, a company that is still producing the same type of kerosene table lamp 100 years later.

“Another one that is a nice lamp, but it’s a little older… was made in 1845, it’s a Cornelius and Baker, and they actually burned grease in it. They would take their old grease and put it in the hole. We don’t burn grease in it now—we use mineral oil—which works real well. It’s very efficient, but it doesn’t have the lighting that kerosene does. But it burns very efficiently for what it is. It gives a nice, soft light,” Van Es said.

Cornelius and Baker, a Philadelphia lighting manufacturer, produced kerosene table lamps from 1849 until about 1874. Many of their designs were brass, and according to Van Es, were very expensive for the average household to own and maintain.

Going back further into history, there were whale oil lamps. “The earlier whale lamps had double prongs on them and you would just light them on the top, like candles,” said Van Es. “But, the oil was very explosive. It burned very well, but it burned like a candle and didn’t provide a lot of light. “

Kerosene was developed in 1849 by Dr. Abraham Gesner from the distillation of petroleum. Whale oil had a foul odor and could spoil easily. Kerosene produced less of an odor, could be stored indefinitely, was cheaper, more efficient and could be used in existing lamps. The establishment of kerosene distilleries by John D. Rockefeller as Standard Oil eventually drove whale oil out as a home fuel.

So, the difference in natural lighting capability from the early whale lamps with the two prongs and the more recent Aladdin lamps, with the tall glass mantles and the more efficient kerosene, provides a clear evolutionary history of lighting over the course of 300 years. These are the practical lights.

Speak to Van Es for any length of time and he will be able to tell you about natural lighting going back to the ancient oil lamps of the Romans, too. And while Van Es may sell lamps for a living, but for him and many others, “It’s a great hobby, if you’re into lighting.”

A video showing Jim Van Es discussing these lamps can be viewed here .
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