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How Do I Identify a Victorian Oil Lamp?

Oil lamps were widely used during the Victorian period.
A Victorian oil lamp.
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  • Written By: Elizabeth West
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 15 April 2014
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An authentic Victorian oil lamp can be expensive, and some kinds are difficult to find. Qualities such as size, weight, glass thickness, and any markings help authenticate an antique lamp from a skillful reproduction. The best way to tell a fake from an authentic antique is to learn something about old glass and the makers of lamps from that era.

19th century oil lamps were used extensively between 1810 and 1890 before gas lighting, and after that in households that did not have gas available. Before the advent of kerosene in the 1850s, whale oil was the primary fuel for a Victorian oil lamp. The fuel reservoir, or font, was typically glass, with an absorbent wick and a metal burner and collar. Fixed globe lanterns of pewter and other metals are harder to find.

A Victorian oil lamp is usually bigger than its modern counterparts, with the exception of whale oil lamps and some finger lamps, designed to be carried via a loop on the base by a finger. Fakes may have metal columns and other parts that are aged to look antique or are plated instead of solid. Parts a dealer claims are solid brass can be tested with a small magnet. If they are solid brass, the magnet will not stick.

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Glass shades were hand blown and will have a small indentation where the glassblower broke it off the pipe. Older glass also contains tiny random air bubbles. A real Victorian oil lamp is heavy because the glass was thicker, and maker’s marks or names may be embossed on the font itself or on the shade. Milk glass, often used to make lamp bases, is translucent when held up to the light. Uranium or Vaseline glass is a yellow-green color, and if authentic will fluoresce under a black light.

Antique Victorian oil lamps can still be used, and many companies make replacement supplies for them, including collars, burners, fuel, and chimneys. They also manufacture reproductions that are nearly indistinguishable from the originals. Unscrupulous or ignorant dealers may try to sell a reproduction as the real thing. It is wise to check a dealer’s credentials before buying anything, especially online, to make sure they have experience in the type of antique sought and a good return policy.

Knowing something about the makers of an antique Victorian oil lamp, particularly glass manufacturers and their marks, will help collectors identify authentic pieces. There are plenty of books on the subject and examples in antique stores and museums. Talking to dealers and others interested in antique lighting is a good way to find out more. Both attendees and sellers at antique shows are often eager to answer questions and share their enthusiasm with new collectors.

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