Lantern History

Early lanterns were purely utilitarian, often square and plain in design, whose original function was merely to shield a burning candle. Most were primitive in design and made from tinplate or sheet iron. Those made of the more expensive materials are extremely rare. Brass and pewter, for example were forged into gun parts and moulded into bullets during the Revolution.


In the early days, the colonists went to bed with the setting sun or made do with fire light. One early improvement was the lantern, or "lanthorne" as it was known 200 years ago. Today lanterns mounted outside the home are both decorative and functional. They provide accent and ambient lighting for visitors who need to safely reach your door.

Streets in most American cities 200 years ago were lighted primarily by reflections from doorway lanterns. Few townships had established provisions for public street lighting. Boston was probably the first. In the early 1700's cressets or iron baskets hung from poles with pine knots as fuel and were used to light busy intersections. These were tended by night watchmen. Some towns passed laws making it mandatory for every sixth house to have a post lantern or a torch to provide the requisite illumination.

By the 1770's the city of Boston had large numbers of post lanterns of English manufacture lighting its streets. Whale oil was the fuel used. By 1751 Philadelphia's streets were also lighted, thanks to Benjamin Franklin. Ever resourceful, it was he who discovered that two wick tubes burning side by side a certain distance apart gave more light than two separate burners. Different fluids were also experimented with. One such fuel was camphene. It was a combination of turpentine and alcohol and burned very brightly, but was extremely dangerous.


The gas light era was introduced in this country about 1800, while in Europe, London first switched to gas in 1807. The beautiful Westminster Bridge was lighted by gas in 1813; Paris streets in 1818. Several significant discoveries increased the brilliance of the gas light; pinching the end of the gas tube to a fan shape, mixing air with the gas before the point at which it was lit and finally, surrounding the flame with a mantle of metallic oxide cloth until it glowed brighter than the flame were all important innovations in the quest for more light.


Legend has it that a windowless, pierced lantern was used to signal Paul Revere from the belfry of the Old North Church of the arrival of the British, a noble task for an ignoble lantern. We can be sure that such a lighting device could never have been seen from across the Charles River. Nevertheless these pierced lanterns are named after the famous patriot and the legend persists.


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Table of Contents
PLF Craftsmanship
Museum Reproductions
History of Lanterns
How to Order